I know I promised you a practical posting today, on how to track down who represents whom, but I am feeling philosophical at the moment. Blame it on a call from an old friend, but today I want to write about the writer’s perception of time.
Have you ever noticed how writers who have finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as though it had been endless? Barefoot walks across the Sahara have taken less time, to hear us tell it. Even I, who wrote a memoir that necessarily dredged up some very tender memories in less than a year and a half, first idea to final comma, tend to describe the actual writing process as though it took years upon years. I heard myself do it twice today, and it made me wonder: is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusual rate of speed, much as moving at the speed of light would make us age backwards, or am I and my writing colleagues, to put it colloquially, whiny wimps?
My theory is that most of us exaggerate the time spent writing that first book in order to try to convey to non-writers just how big a chunk of our mind, energy, and soul has gotten sucked into that all-too-often thankless project. And after writing it, sacre bleu! the time and anguish to find an agent for it! And then to sell it to a publisher! I think that in our heart of hearts, we want all of those hours to be apparent to outside observers, so that they may be impressed — while, of course, maintaining that writerly fiction that we are such geniuses that our work is invariably perfect on the first draft.
The hours of work, like it or not, are NOT readily apparent to outsiders. I write comedy, and I can tell you from experience that most non-writers think jokes flow off my fingertips at the speed of conversation; tell a non-writer that you spent a decade writing a novel, and half the time, he will automatically assume that you are lazy. This drives me nuts.
Am I the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day? For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time, but writers, alas, are not so lucky. Even when our kith and kin catch us in the act, all they really see are hands moving across a keyboard or eyes staring into space.
Thus, I think, the extraordinarily high value we writers place on the end product. It is something tangible we can show to people, physical proof that during all of those hours, we were actually DOING something.
Finally, I have found another line of work with a similar pattern: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me today to catch up. Naturally, I told him about my book that is coming out in a few months (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK; check it out on Amazon and/or B & N), and I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.
Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he tells me, often spend ten or twenty years on a single problem; there are proofs he does not expect to see solved in his lifetime. Physicists, too, routinely linger this long in thought: did you think someone just woke up one day and imagined the quark?
Granted, when mathematicians and physicists crack the big problems, they tend to be rewarded lavishly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nobel Prizes, and similar trinkets. But imagine spending all of that time figuring something out, all the while wondering if someone else is going to solve your equation first. All the while waiting for recognition that can only come after years of hard, patient, lonely work, on a project that may never succeed.
Wait a minute — we’re writers! We don’t have to imagine it; we live it. While a few among us will ultimately be rewarded with lots of money (or, possibly, even the Nobel Prize), the vast majority of us will not. And yet, bless us, still we put in the hours, the years, for the same reason that the mathematicians and physicists do: we want to contribute something new to human thought. We want to explain humanity to itself.
I think that’s pretty terrific of us, really. What a nice thing to do for the world. I think we get a bad rap.
No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. I was reading the other day about a writer — a very, very good one, actually — who wrote for years before she became an overnight success at the age of 36. That may seem young for success as a writer, by current standards, but she wrote her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later. She did manage to sell another novel, to a reputable publisher — she completed it at 24, but it took her five years to sell it — but he paid her only the tiniest of advances. Maddeningly, the publisher ended up holding onto the second book for the rest of her life, publishing it only AFTER her subsequent books had attained significant success.
The author, as some of you may have guessed, was Jane Austen. The first book was SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; the second, the one held hostage by the silly publisher until after her death, was NORTHANGER ABBEY.
Try to remember this, the next time you find yourself feeling that the time between you and publication is apparently endless, in defiance of all the laws of physics. Remember this, whenever you are tempted by non-artistic logic to view difficulty in getting a book published as a sure indicator of low writing quality. Would any reader now say that SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was so poorly written that it deserved to be waitlisted for 14 years?
Let’s hear it for all of us who keep working in the quiet of our solitary rooms. Don’t let anyone tell you that finishing a book isn’t a significant achievement, regardless of the response of the publishing world. If people ask you what you DO in all of those hours sitting at your desk, tell them that you are emulating your Aunt Jane, trying to make time compress and shed a little light on the world.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini