Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Literary Longing, Hope, and Despair

I’ve been working on a memoir for a long, long time. Like ten years long, since I first formed an early draft. Or fifteen years long since I was living in China and writing so much raw material that would inform the heart of it. Or almost twenty years long since I planted the earliest seeds, first grew committed to a writing practice, first allowed myself to dream that I could be a writer. If I keep reaching back, I can see how I’ve been trying to tell my story my whole life.

And yet, I had no idea that it would take so long to form a publishable, marketable draft. To go from writing many of the pieces individually (as stand-alone essays), to editing them (over and over and over), to then merging them into a memoir with a narrative arc. It feels vulnerable to tell you of my struggle, for I have wanted to publish my book for so long now. To gain “success” in the eyes of others and myself, to “prove” to the doubters, to “justify” all this time I’ve spent obsessed with my writing life. And it is tempting to question my process. Maybe if I hadn’t started writing about my twenties so close to my twenties, I would’ve had more perspective from the get-go on the overall meaning and structure of my book—which might have saved me a lot of time. Or maybe I should’ve prioritized hiring more editors to read the whole thing. But editors are expensive, and I’ve written what I’ve felt called to write as I’ve gone. I’ve sought the help of editor friends for feedback, and I’ve intuited a lot on my own. I recognize now how much my craft has grown over the years, and how some of the earlier writing is weak. I’ve gone back and completely rewritten a lot. And I’ve wanted to be done at so many stages, but I’m trying to accept that my book hasn’t been done with me. It has had more questions to ask, more gaps to fill in, more themes to interrogate and connect.

I’m also trying to accept that I am a slow writer, with a slow revision and submission process. Becoming a mother also slowed my process—even as it showed me, all the more, how much I cherish my writing path. No, I will never be one of those writers who pumps out a new book every few years, and yes I’ve let go of many of my earliest writing-related aspirations. But what I know is this: I am still writing. I have been committed to this path for twenty years now, and I know that my core desire to write comes from the most vital, risk-taking, clarity-seeking part of me. Sure, I still want to publish more in order to connect to a larger audience and advance my career. But the seemingly glacial speed of this progress has also forced me to remember why I am drawn to writing in the first place. How writing feeds me; how I’m not happy if I’m not writing—and not just editing, but also actively expressing new ideas and producing new work. Writing shows me how I’m feeling, helps me process my day, my week, my year, my childhood, my unconscious, my future. Writing turns my confusion or grief into story, into poetry, into meaning. Writing breaks silences, creates empathy, seeks redemption and release.  

Yes, the publishing world is incredibly hard to break into, and although self-publishing is a growing viable option, it is also not an easy route if you ultimately want to put out a professional product that can reach a lot of people (via reviews, bookstores, etc.). Over the years I’ve queried agents and presses in several cycles. Each time I’ve received valuable feedback and taken more time to revise. I’ve also shelved the manuscript for years during early motherhood, and started working on a new one. But ultimately, I have not given up hope, and I’ve had enough good feedback to trust that I’m not completely delusional in my efforts. Now, I am gearing up to make a few more edits, and then to send out a few more queries. I know that my book is stronger than it was before, and I see the way I was not ready to send it out when I first did. I also see how I’ve been writing my way out of the middle towards my true beginning and ending for years.  

I’m not saying that the process needs to take this long, and if you are on the path towards publishing a book, I sincerely hope it doesn’t for you. But what I do want to say is that the road from falling in love with the writing process-- to the desire to write a book-- to the reality of writing a book, as well as building a platform that the publishing industry will find marketable—is a long one. It is not the road for every writer. And it doesn’t have to be. There are so many ways to be a writer and to find an audience. Most importantly, you need to keep showing up with the time and means that you have, and to stay connected to what you love about the process. Eventually, or in different phases, it will also be important to find your people, your writing community. A group of other contemplative human beings who understand the beauty, the struggle, the obsession, the fear, and the elation that can come from exploring your most vulnerable and deepest truths through words.

Right now, I’m trying to accept that my publication journey might not turn out the way I hoped it would and that there is so much I can’t control—yet to do this without giving up on my goals. This is a hard, paradoxical state to achieve—and I’d be lying if I said my ego is not still striving for fame, success, and glory (in my own modified terms). But this lens of acceptance is the only sane way that I’ve found to stick with this whole business. I need to continually relearn and remember how the process of writing feeds me—divorced from other outcomes—at the same time that I doggedly return to draft after draft, alone at my desk, the only one who really cares if I do so.

And through this all, I have writing. Writing as my witness. Writing as my companion. Writing as my practice and path.

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