Here’s a fun party story: Over the course of my life, I’ve written five novels.
Despite this, it took me a long time until I found the nerve to start calling myself “a writer.” This was largely because for the majority of my writing life, I was unrepresented and unpublished and yaddayaddayadda I overvalued the validation of other people.
Now? I’m not unpublished anymore. But I am still unrepresented.
So when strangers ask me what I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” I know I’m about to face the inevitable follow-up question, which has nothing to do with The Craft or my artistic sentiments re: the state of humanity (I know, right???). Nah bro, strangers just want to know whether they can find any of my books on a shelf in a Barnes & Noble.
Strangers, I want to sigh, why don’t you understand how long the road is to publication? Why don’t you ask me complex questions about the nature of my work and the deeper implications of my ponderings I mean really.
What strangers don’t realize is that writers are crazy people.
Recently, I had lunch with another writer friend of mine. He has also written many books. He is also unrepresented and uninterested (for now) in self-publishing. As I listened to him tell me how many rejection letters he’d received that week, I reached down deep into the depths of my optimistic soul and was like, “But hey, it’s amazing that you’ve written ____ books, though, right?”
And he just stared at me.
You know that time at the end of your college career, when everyone starts asking you, “What do you want to do after you graduate? What’s your plan?” You know how you devise clever responses that allow you to avoid actually answering the question?
Surprise, surprise, this happens when you’re a writer, too. The What’s-Your-Plan. Except it’s not just happening at the end of your career.
It’s at the beginning. It’s in the middle. It’s on the days when you’re feeling like a bad writer because you slept in instead of getting up to jot down those ideas that have been sticking to your brain for a week. It’s on the days when you just received another form rejection email from an agent you really liked and your heart is shrinking, like, posthaste.
It’s on the days when your full-time job is sucking your soul and you’re too tired to even read somebody else’s book, forget your own. It’s on the days when you run fresh out of ideas and despair about having maxed out your capacity for decent storytelling.
And it doesn’t take long before, “Well, at least I’ve written [insert number here] novels,” feels less like an accomplishment than it does an embarrassment.
Because things are not going according to plan.
Guys, I’m so not operating under some illusion that everything I write is brilliant. By now, I’ve accepted that most of my manuscripts will probably never, ever see the light of day (and some never should). But honestly, yeah, a good handful of them were projects I thought would be “the one” that would catapult my career.
It was like that with Novel #3, which I wrote at the end of high school in between volleyball practices and physics tests.
It was like that with Novel #4, which I wrote at the beginning of college, serialized on the Internet, like a madwoman.
So when I tell you that Novel #5 is buried somewhere in the underbelly of my laptop files, maybe you’ll sort of get why I’m afraid to give Novel #5 the heavy-duty revision it deserves.
And dude, I’m even more afraid of writing Novel #6.
What if I do it and it’s not “the one”? Again?
What if I write Novel #6 and #10 and #20 and I’m still sitting on a pile of old manuscripts, making up stories for my own amusement?
What if the next time I tell someone I’m a writer and they respond with the inevitable, “Cool! So have you written, like, a whole book?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve actually written five/six/ten/*sobs*,” I can’t handle the confusion on their faces when I say no to the Barnes & Noble question?
Oh. Here’s the word I’m looking for:
This will sound ridiculous to non-writers, but sometimes I do feel ashamed. Of having written so many books that are now just sitting there on my hard drive, silently. Of having to quietly archive the rejections in my inbox. I’m embarrassed from constantly defending Young Adult fiction or even explaining what it is to people I don’t even know, and I’m frustrated with myself for feeling embarrassed. And you guys, it’s making me afraid to do the work.
No. It’s making me question whether doing the work is worth it.
Shannon Hale once said, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
Anakin Skywalker once said, “I hate sand.”
Sage. I have always hated sand. There are baby pictures of me on the beach looking downright disgusted by the grit on my hands.
But like it or not, right now, I’m still shoveling sand, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing it for a while. This metaphor is not just for first drafts. It’s for life. This is my sand-shoveling time. This is where my hands get dirty and I choose to bare them for all to see.
Maybe the time between shoveling sand and building sandcastles, this place of survival… maybe this is how we learn to keep going. To do the work. To tell the party story shamelessly. To embrace the grit and say, “Here. Look at my hands,” in the hope that maybe someone else is shoveling, too.
Here’s my confession: A few months ago I realized that oops, I might have written Novel #5’s entire first draft from the wrong point of view. A few. Months. Ago. Guess what I’ve been doing since then? (If you guessed “moping,” that would be correct.)
Ugh. Look at my hands.
And yeah, it’s crossed my mind once or twice while writing this post that maybe I’m whining for no reason. Maybe I just need to suck it up and do the freaking work. Maybe I just need to confront the fear that if I revise Novel #5, it might still not work. And I might kill it. And I might still not be Barnes & Noble shelf material. And I still might not have very good party stories.
But even if I pour myself into this forever, and I never get to hold my debut and open the front cover and thumb through its pages… won’t that be okay? Won’t I be okay?
I think everything I’m trying clumsily to say comes down to this question:
What am I expecting from this life?
Of course I want more than to shovel sand all my life. Of course I want the castle. It’s okay to want the castle. But it’s not my time yet. And learning to live in the grit and invite you into my grit is breaking down the illusion that writing is only about the final product. The shiny cover and Barnes & Noble shelves are not why I’m doing this, and it’s never been why I’m doing this.
Because the reality is, most of the time, writing is less like building castles than it is like shoveling sand.
So I’ll keep shoveling. And one day, it might be my turn to build the castle, but until then… here. Look at my hands.
(…but if anyone comments about how so-and-so wrote FIFTY books before THEY ever got published and omg look at them now, I will punch you through this screen, I tell you, RIGHT through this screen.)