After two years of it, whirling through Colorado and Grand Rapids and Port Orchard and Renton and Seattle in a slow self-implosion that looks more like wrestling than whirling and is more wrestling than whirling, the third-round wrestling of collapsed muscles and bloody lungs yet with no end approaching, no declining timer, no sign of relief near or ever, I have begun to hate my book.
“Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year,” Stephen King writes. “Some people lift cars, too.”
No one believes it. I didn’t believe it, until I grabbed the bumper, tried to lift, and realized I didn’t even know how to grip the thing. I’m writing about an experience I still don’t fully understand, and the sharing of it is even more incomprehensible. A book is not a short story or an essay that I can stand above and see end to end, can bend down to examine the middle. When I crouch to study sentences here, the first chapters curve out of sight below the horizon, and the mythical, mystical end shimmers past land and sea and sky, in the realm of Ringbearers and Dawn Treaders and other whole, completed explorers who survived the doldrums of a writer’s desk.
I sit there every morning. Sometimes the book does, too.
“On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.” Annie Dillard
“I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.” Oscar Wilde
People have started asking about my next project. “What are you working on now?”
“Still the book.”
“Anything else? A novel? How about short stories?”
“Still the book.”
I do write other things: churning out blog posts to duck the label of starving artist; fixing forgotten pieces and mailing them to journals for the satisfaction of finishing and the release of letting something go; bleeding out a story because I need to, kept awake and distracted until a long week of 2 a.m. writings—but those are easy, carried by necessity or inspiration. The book gets neither.
In their place, I’ve built a routine for myself that begins with a six a.m. alarm and a shower, seduces me with a pair of moccasins and a cup of tea, and sits me at sprawling desk while piñon incense burns on my bookshelf. I have moved from ragged notebooks to a shitty first draft, from a bloated second draft to a sanded third. Now I’m writing a fourth and listening to test readers, searching for an agent and whirling, wrestling, waiting.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness,” writes George Orwell. “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
What if my demon is vanity?
What if the reason I keep at this, forgoing a full-time job, sacrificing a decent income, giving up advancement and luxury and stability, is all for a pride project that impresses no one, goes nowhere, and does nothing to improve even a tiny piece of this world, and by its opportunity cost, detracts from it?
We have wrestled through states and years, this book and I. We share the hate of co-dependence, our identities mixed and our futures blurred, trapped together until publication or euthanasia. Hope comes in spurts, like water through a kinking hose: “We’d love to see some more!” from one agent, “I deeply appreciate the narrow focus of your query submission” from another, “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” from NPR. The opposite drowns my desk daily.
“It takes only the tiniest pinch of encouragement to keep a writer going,” John Steinbeck writes, “and if he gets none, he sometimes learns to feed even on the acid of failure.”
We have wrestled with no end and no respite but these: the rare hours that appear like condensation halfway through my morning routine, invisible and unnoticed until I feel them, always a surprise. Hours cool and clean and perfect, when not inspiration but something better settles, a high and a satisfaction and a freedom all at once, when for an hour, the wrestling is not wrestling but whirling once again. Finally again, a twisting and dancing through words and sentences and paragraphs that does not need anything but the whirling, whirling, whirling as the morning breaks and the tea cools, forgotten on my desk—and then it ends, as suddenly as it began. Words stick and sentences choke, and the book and I spiral back into a world of starved hopes and neglected bank accounts. And still, we keep wrestling.