This essay was originally published on Book Pregnant, but I thought it could use a reboot. As fall starts and the weather turns, there is an almost physical push for me to get back to work, to shift from publicizing Hand Me Down and really dig into the new work. But I’m feeling paralyzed by the pressure. Does this ever happen to you? Here is my take.
How Can I Write Naked When Everyone Is Watching?
Writing used to be easy.
Are you laughing yet? If you’re a writer, you know that’s a load of crap. Writing is not easy; it never has been. What’s that Hemingway quote?There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. It’s funny because it’s true, and most of us are familiar with the pain, the gutting open of ourselves, the pouring of our hearts and stories onto the page. I’m a writer; I can take the abuse. I bled onto my keyboard for years. But it seems that ever since I sold my novel, writing has gotten even harder.
When I wrote Hand Me Down, it was just me at my computer, alone in my office. Just my voice—and, Liz, my narrator’s, of course—in my head shaping the language, telling the story for an anonymous, would-be, someday, maybe-in-my-wildest-dreams-will-someone-else-actually-read-this-whole-thing potential reader. I wrote for me. I wrote because I had to tell my story, had to understand the hard truths of my childhood by twisting them inside out and rearranging them in an order that made sense. I could write like I was naked—bare my soul completely with words—because no one was watching.
I knew people would read my stories, sure, but they were my professors, my classmates in workshops, strangers at a conference, a very limited, very supportive audience. Back then I felt free enough to write honestly. No one knew the things I called fiction were true. No one cared if my work was good enough to publish—in fact, it was expected not to be. We were all learning; criticism came with the intention of improving the work rather than with the judgment that comes once a piece is finished.
Years later, after I sold the book, my editor had very few suggested changes, but we all agreed that the ending could be improved. I needed to write an entirely new climax scene. And I choked.
I couldn’t write anything for weeks. The pressure of creating something brand new that was going to go into the finished book was overwhelming. I had spent the better part of the previous five years reading and rereading and revising every word of my manuscript over and over and now I had mere months until a deadline that carried the weight of a paid, binding contract for an editor who represented a big NY publishing house. It was enough to strike me dumb, and I became paralyzed by these new real-life demands on my creative process. My bare-soul writing had gained a VIP audience and I felt fully exposed. I froze in the spotlight and it was like I was five again, running offstage to puke in the wings during our church play, incapable of performing.
Near tears, I finally had to call my editor and tell her I was stuck. I couldn’t admit that I was a fraud, but I knew I was. These people had invested in a lost cause; the whole sale had been a mistake. I had managed to fool us all by pretending to be a writer and my house of cards was about to crash.
I’m so lucky I have a fantastic editor. She talked me off the ledge, said we had a little bit more time. She said the words I most needed to hear: give yourself a break. She made me feel safe enough to risk being uncovered again, like I was back in workshop, writing for myself, writing to tell the best story I could tell, to understand, to discover truths. I convinced myself no one important was watching and I took off my writing clothes, spilled more blood onto my keyboard.
But my relationship with writing has changed even more dramatically since then. Not only did my editor read my book, but then the marketing and sales teams, my publicist, my family, booksellers, industry reviewers, media reviewers, bloggers, and then, the general public. Now, anyone who wants to can pick up my book, read my blood on the page, read the product of my emotional sweat and literal tears. Not only that, but they can respond to me directly, tell me how much they loved Hand Me Down and can’t wait for the next book. It’s so wonderful and gratifying to hear that, to hear that people are responding to my words and my story, but it also reminds me that there are now people waiting for me to write. I feel like everyone is watching, and I don’t want to let them down.
I’m trying to work on my second book, but I’ve found that it’s not me alone at my computer anymore. It’s not just my voice in my head, but also the negative comments from readers (even though they are few), the positive comments from readers and reviewers (what if I don’t live up to the praise?), statistics about sales figures and sophomore flops, the VIP audience of my agent and editor that are now among my earliest readers instead of the last, the knowledge that this book needs to be written more quickly than HMD, that it needs to be saleable, publishable, in order to keep my career moving, the nagging doubt that I’m capable of writing a second book.
If I can’t even be alone in my own head, how can I possibly get to that place where I can gut myself open?
There is no simple answer, or not one I know of. (If you’ve found one, please share!) I’m doing my best to work my way back to that safe space I started out in, the frame of mind that I’m only writing for me. I need to learn to protect myself from those outside voices, pretend that I’m invisible. This book does need to be publishable, eventually, and I can only get to publishable by writing those shitty first drafts, so that’s the place to start. The public doesn’t exist for this second book yet, and though my agent and editor are supportive readers, I need to kick them out of my brain for the beginning stages as well. I’ll put blinders on and earplugs in and focus on the writing, the storytelling, the characters’ voices, not the ones beyond my office. I’ll hang dark curtains over all my windows, and while I know the world is still out there, at least they won’t be able to see me.
It’s like that saying: Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one can hear. I also love Jennifer Weiner’s addition from her BEA speech: “Tweet like your mother’s not online.”
Write like you’re naked. It’s not easy, but we knew that already. We wouldn’t have made it this far if we couldn’t take the pain.