Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Babies and Books

One of the most common analogies people make about the writing life is how writing a book is like having a baby. And some people claim this is true, and some people claim that it doesn’t even come close. I have been both of those people at one time or another, but the one thing I do know is that there is one, for certain way that writing a book is like having a baby: People are forever telling me how when you have a baby it’s the most painful and terrifying thing you have ever experienced in your life. And you instantly forget it. Writing a book is also painful and terrifying and long and arduous. But what you forget is not necessarily that it was painful and terrifying and long and arduous. The thing you forget is exactly how much you suck.

I am a big reader, and a big writer. I have been my whole life. One of those things always leads into, and then bleeds into, the other. But I have this problem. If you’ve never written a completed project, you may not be familiar with this problem, but if you’re on your second, third, or fifteenth big project, I’m hoping somebody out there has a similar problem and can help me. Because what happens is I write something and work at it and carve at it and shine it up until I am happy with 93% of what is written there. 93% is as high as I ever get. There is a margin of error for self-loathing, which is, I believe, the cornerstone of any artistic pursuit, and my assumption is if I am happy with 93%, at least 97% is good. It’s a somewhat optimistic assumption, but there you go. I allow myself the reasonable assumption that, when I’m done, I know 3% of it is crap. I can’t usually see it, but I know it must be there. Anyway, I’ve worked at something and made it tolerable to pretty damn good, and the thing is, this usually takes a long while, lots of hours, several long-winded conversations with people who aren’t actually there, several more long-winded conversations with the people who have to put up with me, gallons of coffee and tea, several pounds of imported chocolates and a lot of handholding.* And it becomes something I actually mostly like, and would probably love, if I wasn’t the one writing it, and that 4% of my brain wasn’t sitting there going, “omg this is probably so obvious, it’s probably not exciting enough or interesting or clever enough…” and on and on and on. But the thing is, at the start? It really effing sucks. It sucks a lot. Like this one time, my mother turned to me and says, “My God, I had such gorgeous kids. Seriously, I’m glad, because I don’t know what I would do if I ever had ugly kids.” She was joking (I think). But this feels like that. I don’t want my first drafts to exist because eeeewwww no way could I have made that!

In the middle of my first draft, I’m still reading a lot of related stuff. There’s tone and style and certain genre nuances and keeping track of what’s been done and what hasn’t been done before. So I’ve been reading stuff like The Historian and Sunshine and most recently The Passage. All of which are pretty awesome vampire books, and all of which are a lot better written than the fairly awesome idea I have in my head that is not writing itself properly dammit! And intellectually, I know those books started out crap. Because they all do, they always do, and I can write well, eventually. Urg. Eventually. But rationality gets pushed out the window, and I go all despair despair despair! Because my writing is crap, and this is what it has to look like when it gets published, and I don’t think I can get there from here.

Well, okay, that’s probably not true. Probably I can get there from here, and most likely I will, and of course, I will continue to try. But the moments of I SUCK SO HORRIBLY WHY DOESN’T IT COME OUT LIKE IT’S SUPPOSED TO WHY IS EVERYONE BETTER THAN ME???!!!!! are a needless distraction. The solution is obviously not to stop reading, because that would be a bit like drawing water from a well that’s dried up. So I sit and stew and sulk and read authors who are better than I am, who, when I’m not writing have the power to inspire me to greater heights, but who, when I am writing, remind me just how far I have to go.

It’s funny, because I had a pretty good year, last year. Even having to give up Hannah, it was a pretty good year. I made new friends, travelled farther than I have ever gone, managed to keep a blog for a length of time, that people actually read. I think, most importantly, is I realized that I am a writer like other writers. Writing, I think, is very singular, and we’re all sort of just… here. So I have this thing in my head where I know real writers procrastinate, but I’m pretty sure they procrastinate less than me. I know real writers have other non-writing lives, but I’m pretty sure theirs is busier than mine, so they have more of an excuse, and I know every person's first draft sucks a lot, but I'm pretty sure mine are probably a whole lot worse. And this year, that sort of changed, because I went looking for those real writers, and found out that we are the same. Which means, I am one of those. It’s something, as I’ve said before, that I’ve been well aware of for a long time, that it’s the storyteller in me, more than anything else, that separates me from other people. But years of being told it’s the other stuff, have left me feeling even more singular than I ought to. So this year, I have learned somehow, to lose all that stuff, and accept that I am mired into all of this, the torture, procrastination, addictive personality, and all the rest, and so is everyone else. Just the other day, I was moaning to my beloved that first drafts are so completely stupid and I feel like I’m nothing but a little kid playing in mud, is how productive I am, grumble grumble. And he responded with, “Right. Because every other writer in the universe does it differently.”

They don’t, is the thing, and I work hard to remember that, but it is hard, and it is part of the work involved, and I forget that, every single time. After I've done something I really love and am really proud of, I have to start over and write crap and play in the mud and count words every day because it’s the only kind of satisfaction to be found, that this part is almost over. And then I pick up a book and realize “holycrow, the whole universe is better than me! Despair despair despair!”

I know I’m not alone in this. I know it’s just part of the life. It reminds me of that part in The Hockey Sweater, when Roch Carrier says people on TV were these golden untouchable Gods, but hockey players were the real heroes, because they were only better at something each of the boys had done. That’s how I feel, about other authors. That’s why I hate all the lit snobbery that goes on, and the way some writers deserve to be published and some don’t, and just because millions of people read your stuff it doesn’t mean you’re any good, and you shouldn’t write about people like this and nobody wants to read about people like that and people who self-publish are just little kids who think if they slap their name on the cover of a book they’re real writers, and people who have contacts in the publishing industry have it easy and grumble grumble grumble. We’re all on the same team, here. Some of us do it well, some of us stumble along. Some of us are really good on purpose, some of us by accident. Some of us have a lot of people pulling for us, some of us just have a couple people, some are on their own for now. Some writers are not as good as other writers. But the thing is, we’re doing it. And the other thing I sometimes forget is that some people don’t even have that.

When I told my counselor about how I most often feel like I’m fooling myself, like I’m sitting around, playing in mud, she took a different approach. She smiled and said, “It’s really not a bad life, is it?” And really, it isn’t. To be able to sit around and play in the mud, to be able to hate one part of yourself with just enough vigor to know you’re better than that, and not enough to stop entirely, ever, is something handfuls of people have, and that’s it. We’re it. I’m it. Scary thought, when I’m in the middle of hating what I’ve written or reading authors a million times better than I. Also sometimes scary when I’m reading authors who are only a hundred times better than I, because sometimes even that seems unreachable, and that’s just not fair. But it's pretty awesome the rest of the time.

It’s hard to remember that too, but I’m working on it.

*Must stop here and thank the hand-holders, who I don’t think always realize how often and how close I come to dropping the whole thing, whatever the thing is at the time. They put up with my endless whining with unbelievably good humor and patience, and have pretty much learned to put up with the 4% of me that will not stop the despair and loathing, no matter how hard we all try, and manage to shake the rest of me back into gear when I need it.

** It occurs to me that if you are not Canadian, you may not even know what The Hockey Sweater is, but it’s kind of a big deal.