Last month was Private Politics‘ second book birthday, and next week is Star Dust‘s first. They’re a tale of contrasts. It took Genevieve and I approximately nine months to write the first draft of Star Dust. In contrast, while I started Private Politics during the summer of 2013, I wrote most of it in 6 weeks in September and October of that year. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book so well, so painlessly.
But does that mean Private Politics is better than a book with which I struggled?
There were moments when I didn’t think I’d survive Party Lines, for example. Of the four manuscripts I’m working on–by myself and with Genevieve–one of them is going splendidly. The other three…aren’t.
A book can go badly because of external stuff: stress, lack of sleep, laundry, weather, the evil day job, illness, whiny children, the future of the free world balancing on the knife’s edge of an election. But I repeat myself.
It can also go badly because you lose the thread of the thing, by which I mean something like the rhetorical concept of kairos, the sense of timeliness that calls a work into being. Whatever we label it, sometimes the urgency just drains out, and good luck conjuring it back once that’s happened.
And of course the problem can be in the manuscript itself–characters that don’t make sense or don’t have enough conflict or a plot with holes so large you could drive a snowplow through them.
But let’s say you keep writing and you manage to push past the bad–whatever type of bad it is–and you come out the other side. Is the book that kicked your ass worse than the book that didn’t? Or maybe I have that backwards, maybe the hard book is better. You struggled through and edited and sweated and cried. Isn’t that more of an accomplishment?
I had a poetry professor who argued every poem is about the process of its own creation. With due respect to him, I don’t buy it. And the more art I create, the less of it I buy.
To state the obvious, my relationship to my books is different than a reader’s. I wrote every sentence and made every edit. I understand every reference, and I see not only what’s on the page, but also my inspiration and everything I intended. (And perhaps how I’ve failed.)
I also know all the things that aren’t in the text. The way that cafe where I work sometimes smells like burnt coffee beans and caramelized sugar, how I wrote that scene longhand while lying under the Christmas tree watching the lights, or that the love scene everyone adored came out of an unfinished manuscript about two different characters. The book for me is thick with that stuff, and I can’t clear the haze to see my book without the process of its own creation getting in the way–so maybe my professor was half-right.
I’m trying to remind myself of this as I look at the projects that are writing well and also (especially?) those that aren’t. The high stress books, the books that are the most work: they end up particularly palimpsest-y (is that a word?) for creators, but they’re every bit as clean for readers. Readers see nothing but the work–even when we wish they wouldn’t.