Friday, August 7, 2015 was publication day, when my first completed novel Within the Walled City became a published book with a real ISBN number, a real record in the world, a tangible story available to readers on this planet. It was a strange day because the temperature dropped to a tolerable seventy-nine, I was home alone, and Jack was asleep when the finalized proof came in the mail. Sidney was snoring in her bed, disinterested and lethargic, when I found the package at the open front door, tore it open to reveal the awaited contents, and stood barefoot on the porch staring at it. My name in hollyhock. The cover we spent months perfecting. The photo on the back, bottom corner. The dedication page. The whole story.
I looked at out at our street, unmoving at three o’clock, the wind is rustling in the trees. I could hear cars passing by steadily on the busier cross road, the motion of cicadas in the trees. No fanfare. Why should there be? No parade of little people coming to cheer me at the end of the marathon, to whistle as I strove across the finish line.
Every book I’ve ever read on writing has offered the same warning: the day your book arrives in the mail in print will be strangely unremarkable. Dani Shapiro says, “Most published writers will tell you that the moment they hold the book […]—the moment is curiously hollow. It can’t live up to the sweat, the solitude, the bloody battle that it represents.” I feel intensely grateful to have read those words, along with the words of many great writers, which prepared me for this strange paradox of finishing—the glorious end—and finding myself quieted, of all things. Well, here it is, I thought. And really, that was it.
So in truth, this post, this written tribute, this composition dedicated to finishing my project, I realized, ought really be more of a dedication to the process than the end.
“Writing fiction,” Stephen King says, “especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”
I remember reading those words years ago when I was working on a different project, one that was tabled after six drafts or so, and sitting up straight, feeling an electric current of agreement. The powerful YES, EXACTLY barreling out of the deepest part of me. It is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. All those mornings before light, every day, dragging my body to my desk, opening the laptop, waiting for the coffee to drip enough into the pot so I could pour a cup. Cold feet on the hardwoods. Sweater wrapped around my body. Welcome pre-dawn. Lonely dark. The tick of the baby grandfather clock. The silence of the boys sleeping, the dog shifting in her crate, knowing I was awake. The returning. Returning. Returning. Returning to the story over and over again, shifting, fixing, deleting (Lord, there has been so much deleting), adding, hating, loving, questioning. The first draft was so long ago I can’t even remember what it felt like the first time the story came out—that was almost seven years ago. All the drafts since, re-working, changing, growing the characters, the scenery, the images, the feelings, the humanity.
“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird) This miracle, that what appears so plain, so mundane, so ordinary—small black text on white pages—is really a new universe! This miracle!
Toward the end of the creating process, between drafts, I had editors. The first was done by a dear friend with incisive skills. It cut the story down, pared it, like a gardener with shears at the beginning of spring. And it cut me down to the quick, but without that edit I wouldn’t have ever finished. I couldn’t have grown this story to what it became without her vision for what it could be. She’s the first person I acknowledge with credit as a contributor. The second was a different kind of help, when the story was pretty much set. This editor’s attention to detail and plain old praise of the story pushed me to the end. The final drafts. A copyeditor fixed my errors, and said the story is too sad for me. My answer to that (after a night of a lot of self-doubt!) was that really, isn’t life too sad? But don’t we continue to seek out its promised sweet marrow anyway? And isn’t sadness a key player in every life? And isn’t that why we tell stories? And isn’t hope, the redemption of sadness, at the heart of every good story?
The writing was finished. Friends came around me to illustrate and design the cover, format the text, walk me through the process of self-publication, ask me over and over, When will it be done? When can I read it?
In the past few days, people have asked how it feels. What do I do now?
Isn’t it strange, but as I waited for the proofs to arrive in the mail, I opened a fresh notebook and began jotting down ideas for the next novel. The next universe. In the past few months, pregnant, tired, working on the logistics of Within the Walled City, I have not been writing. Early mornings have found me tossing in unsettled sleep, sore, as big as a whale. That good work of writing, the thing I feel certain I was made for, has been in hibernation, but Mae’s birth is right around the corner and all I can think is I can’t wait to get back to the drawing board. I can’t wait to write a first draft again. I can’t wait to be up in the dark, alone, unfolding the world.
“After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)
This is how it feels. It feels like there are millions of unwritten sentences waiting to come together just on the inside of my skull. It feels like I am twenty-nine and I might only have sixty good years of brain power left. It feels like a treasure, a great gift. It feels like I want to narrate the world. It feels like I want my children to experience what it feels like to have passion for something. It feels like taking part in a tradition many thousands of years old. It feels like being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and striving, always, forward.
“And so I dip my toe into the stream. I feel the rush of words there. Words that are like a thousand silvery minnows, below the surface, rushing by. If I don’t capture them they will be lost.” (Dani Shapiro, Still Writing)