Time in the writer’s world

Still hanging in there, patient ones? Yesterday, I was talking about how the typical agent and editor have a VERY different sense of how time passes than, say, the writer whose work is sitting on their respective desks. As maddening as it is for is, a couple of months to turn around a manuscript just isn’t as long to them as it is to us. Today, I would like to discuss how time runs differently for writers than for other mortal souls in other respects.

Have you ever noticed how writers who have recently finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as practically 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. Is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusually rapid rate, 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?

Because I love you people, I shall spare you the answer that virtually every agent and editor in the business would give to that particular question.

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. Not to mention after writing it, sacre bleu! all of the additional 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, sometimes not even those within the industry itself, surprisingly enough. I write comedy, and I can tell you from long, hard 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 not only lazy, but the universe’s slowest typist.

For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. I am certainly not the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day. 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. It just doesn’t look like hard work to them. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time.

Coming from an academic background, I used to think that my scholarly friends would understand what I do, but the rules are so different for getting scholarly work published that I have changed their mind. Since “publish or perish” is the rule at the university, academics pretty much automatically get articles and books published if their research is interesting, but the rest of us writers, alas, are not so lucky. When you finish writing your doctoral dissertation, you at least get to wear fancy robes for a day and hear someone in authority say your name out loud in front of a whole lot of people. (I ask you: when’s the last time a large institution set aside a day to celebrate your finishing a novel?) And, unlike academic writing, publication rate is not a particularly good indicator of the quality of the work.

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. Not to mention validation of all of our unseen gut-wrenching work.

I have found another line of work with a similar rhythm to ours, though: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me some time ago to catch up. That was back when I had every reason to believe that my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK) would be coming out sometime before I have grown a long gray beard, and although it seems astonishing to me in retrospect, I was tremendously impatient for the release date. In talking about it with my mathematician friend, I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.

Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he told 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 door prizes. 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.

What a nice thing for us to do for the world, eh?

No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. And no wonder that it is absolutely vital that we remind ourselves early and often, particularly during those interminable-feeling periods when we are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, that we are in fact public benefactors. We just aren’t treated like it until we hit the big time – and because most of the people we know don’t really understand what we do before that point, we can sometimes make the terrible mistake of starting to believe that speedy publication is the ONLY valid measure of the quality of writing.


And I can prove it with an anecdote. Once there was a novelist – a very, very good one– 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 bear in mind that she completed her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later.

Because she believed in her dreams, she did manage to sell another novel in the interim, 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?

Again, poppycock.

I say 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!

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