I love Jennie Nash. And I loved and blurbed Perfect Red. She's warm, funny, and whipsmart, and she's also the author of The Threadbare Heart, The only True Genius in the Family and The Last Beach Bungalow, as well as three memoirs, including Other Lessons I learned From Breast Cancer. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writing Program (Yay! So do I!) and is also a private writing coach, and so far, in 2013, six of her clients have signed with top New York agents. She lives in Los Angeles. Thank you so much, Jennie, for writing something for the blog!
The Three Worst Moments in the Writing Life
By Jennie Nash
Writing is a horrible, rotten no-good business. Sure, there are moments of transcendent joy and quiet contemplative peace, but for the most part it’s just really hard. I mean, you sit alone in a room hoping against hope that someone out there will care about the words you are stringing together, and feeling every doubt ring through your head like a clarion bell — Is your opening line catchy? Does the comma go inside the quotation mark? Should you have gone to beauty school and learned a marketable skill?
Some days are harder than others and some years are like an earthquake that turns everything to rubble. This year was one of those for me. After six well-published books, I wrote a novel I loved and I couldn’t sell it. Poor me, right? When some people would be happy to have one book published? When some people would kill to have my resume? YES POOR ME! It was heartbreaking. I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was in fourth grade and we published our poems in a mimeographed book bound with blue cardboard. I have invested decades into this career. But you can’t be a writer without readers. So it was all over. I was done.
I brooded so hard. I pouted, I ate a lot of Ben & Jerry’s. And then I started to write about the horrible writing year I’d had. I wrote about the worst moments of the last twelve months, and then I kept going. I added in the worst moments from my entire 35-year career, and the worst moments from every writer friend I’ve ever known, and before I knew it I had 43 of the worst moments in the writing life.
The irony, of course, is that in the midst of feeling awful about writing, I kept writing. We all do. If you’re a writer, you write. And so for each of the worst moments, I added in a way to get over it. Maybe it’s not the only way or even the best way, but it’s a way.
I’ve picked out three of the worst moments to share with you today. Caroline Leavitt invited me to post ‘em because she knows a thing or two about the agonies of writing. Yeah, she’s killing it right now, but trust me: she feels the pain just the same way I do and just the same way you do. She is, after all, human.
Don’t agree that these three moments are that bad? Check out all 43 of the worst moments in The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat: 43 of the Worst Moments in the Writing Life and How to Get Over Them. It’s available as of this moment as a PDF download for a special reduced price. It will be an e-book and a book you can hold in your hand some day later this fall, but for now it’s just a PDF, just a howl against the cruel nature of what we do. I’ll also be posting the 43 moments one at a time on a blog at jennienash.com starting September 1.
So here we go:
#1: You deem yourself unworthy.
You have a burning desire to write a book – an idea that haunts you like a ghost in the attic — but you don’t think you have the talent or the skill or the expertise to write it. “Who am I to write a book?” you ask. “I’m just a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.” You cast around for someone to give you permission to write — a teacher, a friend who writes, a famous writer you met that one time at a signing, your mom — but no one ever gives you permission, because it’s not their job. It’s your job and you’re not doing it. Your thoughts of unworthiness grow even deeper and stronger, until you believe it with your whole heart: you are not someone who can write a book. What were you even thinking? You take up tennis, knitting, become a voracious reader of other people’s books — but the burning desire to write doesn’t go away. It smolders there, often for a lifetime, turning into a jagged, hard-edged regret. “I always wanted to write a book,” you say, and people smile their close-lipped smiles and quickly look away.
The way forward:
Stop looking outside for answers. Give yourself permission to create. You’re the only one who can grant it, and the only one who can take it away.
If there are certain aspects about writing that you need to learn — certain skills you need to develop, certain elements you need to master — start practicing. They say it takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery in any given area, and they’re not just talking about speaking French or performing brain surgery. They’re talking about writing something strangers will want to read. You may have mastered some of these skills over the years through your day job, or by journaling, or by writing on the sly. For everything else, the clock starts now.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou
#14. Another writer writes your book before you finish writing your book
You’re toiling away at your novel about Abraham Lincoln, thinking you’re really on a roll now, when you open the Wall Street Journal and there on the “Off Duty” page is a round-up of great books about Abraham Lincoln, collected by the author of a forthcoming novel about Abraham Lincoln. You Google the author and learn that he is one of the world’s foremost experts on Abraham Lincoln, and holds a special endowed chair on Abraham Lincoln at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. He just happens to write fiction in his spare time on Tuesdays, and that effort has resulted in this great new novel. You click around and notice that the expert’s book has recently been reviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air and optioned for a movie by Steven Spielberg. Then you shut your computer down, go eat a big slice of chocolate cake, get in bed and pull the covers over your head. When your loved ones ask you what’s wrong you yell, “Why the fuck do you think anything’s wrong?”
The next time you log onto your computer, you take the draft of your novel about Lincoln and slip it into the archives. You will try to forget about it, but you will now see the other person’s Lincoln book everywhere. It will be stacked a mile high at Costco, displayed in the window of your local independent bookstore, lovingly set on the coffee table of your best friend’s ski lodge. The blurbs on the cover will taunt you and that stupid portrait of Lincoln peering out at you as if he knows what you have failed to do. When your book club decides to read the Lincoln book, you bow out. When people start talking about it at cocktail parties, you grit your teeth. You have to go to the dentist and get one of those mouth guards to protect your teeth from sure destruction. And of course the dentist will have the Lincoln book on the side table for his patient’s reading pleasure.
The way forward:
Take a deep breath and keep writing.
And note that there have been 15,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln. There is room for one more. There is always room for one more.
"So this is always the key: you have to write the book you love, the book that's alive in your heart. That's the one you have to write." ― Lurleen McDaniel
# 39. You hold a book signing and no one comes.
Your publicist arranged a book signing at Sweet Neighborhood Bookstore, in a town about an hour from where you live. You don’t know anyone in this town, so you drive down early and grab dinner at the Whole Foods deli. You find the bookstore, and then drive around the block a few times looking for parking. When you find a spot, you walk back to the store and stand on the sidewalk out front gazing at the stacks of your book in the window and at the giant poster of your book cover. Someone has made a sign that says, “Author reading tonight!” You take a picture, making sure to include in the frame the stacks of John Irving’s latest novel, the stacks of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest treatise on the way we behave, and the stacks of the Barefoot Contessa’s new cookbook. You have never felt more awesome in your entire life. You feel that you know, now, the true meaning of success and contentment. You have done it! You have written a book!
A slightly disheveled woman walks by with a dog on a leash. The dog stops to sniff by the window, and it sniffs your shoe and so you smile at the woman, nod at the window, and say, “I’m the author.”
The woman smiles. “Congratulations,” she says.
You smile back. “Thank you so much.”
The woman yanks her dog away and continues on her path, so you go into the store.
The young man at the counter looks up and says your name. He recognizes you from your author photo. He directs you to the stack of books set out on the table and hands you a Sharpie. “We’d like you to sign a dozen for the store,” he says. You see that he is making out a shelf talker that says, “Signed copies available!” You sit and sign the books and chat with the counter guy about traffic and the weather and the new John Irving novel. There are half a dozen customers in the store, browsing and reading and making their way quietly through the stacks. There’s another bookstore employee who wanders in and out, asking if you’d like water or tea. She’s the first one to look at her watch. She’s the first one to speak about what is happening, or rather what is not happening.
“People often come late on Thursdays,” she says, “It can be a busy night.” You smile and chat with her about the Barefoot Contessa’s roasted tomato soup recipe, which you recently had at a potluck.
Counter Guy makes an announcement. “Our author reading will begin in five minutes,” he calls out, hoping to summon the customers to fill at least a few of the black folding chairs set up before you. There are 27 chairs. You know because you counted them. None of the customers emerge.
The bell on the door tinkles and you look up with huge hope, only to see a mother dragging two small girls, and talking loudly about not touching any of the stuffed animals. They have come to pick up a birthday present for a party. You surmise this because one of the little girls has on sparkly red shoes and the other has on sparkly pink. Watch Girl steps in to help them, and you watch the small drama unfold – the choosing of the gift, the wrapping of it, the paying.
When the party-goers are gone, Watch Girl looks at her watch again and then turns to you. “Let’s give it five more minutes.”
You nod and get up and go look at the shelf of poetry behind the rows of empty chairs. After five minutes, Counter Guy comes out from behind the counter and folds himself into one of the folding chairs. “You can read to us,” he says, “It will be good practice, anyway.”
“Sure!” you say, as if you were just offered an all-expenses trip to the moon. As Watch Girl perches next to Counter Guy, you launch into the program you prepared — a few comments about your background and how you came to write the book, and then you pick up your book, turn to the page you carefully marked with a Post-It, and read the words you slaved over. As you read, you want to die. You are amazed that you can have such a strong, clear intention separate from the actions of your mind and your mouth. You are reading your book out loud in a bookstore, and yet you want nothing more than to die.
When you are finished reading, you close the book and Counter Guy and Watch Girl clap enthusiastically. Counter Guy leaps up to help a customer who has made his way to the counter. “Bravo,” Watch Girl says, and then she gets up and starts to put away the chairs.
You help her, because what else are you going to do?
The way forward:
Grin and bear it, then go back and read all those posts about platform building that you ignored the first time.
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” ― Gertrude Stein