There it sits on the dining room table, the printout of the second draft of my novel, THE OAKLANDERS. I look at those 323 pages, a pile of black-on-white promise, and I feel a slow surge of excitement and pleasure and fondness: "Oh, there's my story about Kira and Adam and Polly!"
My book! To get this book -- and myself -- to this point is such a personal triumph!
I've worked on this novel for two and a half years. The first draft (finished a year ago) never made it into double-space, single-sided pages, it was never fully sequential, and the ending... well there was one, but, well, suffice it to say that none of that ending made it into this ending.
This second draft! Getting this draft out of virtual and into "reality" is a huge step -- this is the first time I've printed out any of it. Until now it's existed only on my computer, and as electronic files regularly emailed to myself to back it up on the yahoo and gmail servers. And, "second draft" is a misnomer. Parts have been through thirty drafts. Most of it has been workshopped. Every section has been through at least four go-overs. Maybe I should just call it a "Reader's Draft." Because now it's ready for a few good readers to help me see what still needs work.
Sigh. Now begins the painful journey I've taken with three other full-length fiction manuscripts. Now it begins the manuscript's slow creep into Monster and Heartbreaker and Failure-Broker and Illness-Provoker...
... but NO! Not this time!
Because, this book, no matter what its eventual publication outcome, is a different story. I'm thrilled to say that I know that this book -- or any book -- will never crush my soul again, no matter what the publication outcome.
My Ambivalent Career
Okay, here's the scoop. I've been writing seriously for decades. This is my career. I've published widely. I have publication credits on my CV for essays, non-fiction books, columns, articles, short stories, awards, speaking engagements, etc. I make my living with my writing and with my teaching of writing: fiction, non-fiction, technical, business, blah, blah, blah.
And much of the time I've been miserable. It's rarely enough, I've felt. After all The Big Kahuna, the prize in the sky, publication of THE LITERARY NOVEL, has eluded me.
I've written them, that isn't the problem. This is my third novel. The first one is in the drawer forever, the second one... ah, heartbreak (though it might someday be revived). I have a short story collection, too, and it's barely left the house, so afraid I was of taking that long walk again to Failure Town.
The Depressed Fiction Writer, C'etait Moi
I slid sideways into my writing career, stepping in the cold water and pulling back, freaking out, pulling back, feeling unworthy even as I plunged deeper into the cold water. My publication credits, even for my nonfiction books, have too often felt hollow. My fiction manuscripts have been joyful-painful to write (that's fine) but agony to try to sell. And I think that agony has showed -- I've gone through the submission process as if going bravely to my execution, baring my neck for the guillotine, "staying strong..." I've wallowed in the rejection letters.
Here's what I've done at similar junctures with my previous novels and short story collection:
• freaked out
• practiced either/or thinking
• focused on the negative
• expected perfection
• called myself names
• expected disaster
• predicted the future
• made myself physically ill.
Recognize this list? All these items (and more!) are common Thinking Distortions of Depressed People. Guilty as charged -- specifically around my fiction.
Ah, the Irony
Ironically, the non-fiction wing of my career has gone smoothly and felt almost too easy. And as a result, it's been easy for me -- in my Depressed Person mode -- to regard it as unimportant. "But it's not my novel," I've been known to think.
Also ironically, I know better! I've spent years counseling other writers on the writing process, helping them avoid the pitfalls of this kind of depressed thinking, getting them to their goals.
Things are Different Now
So what's changed? What makes me look at this manuscript on the table, peek inside and feel, instead of dread, a slow bubble of joy?
Perspective. (Gained with the help of a lot of great therapy!)
I went into this book knowing that I've been doing "it" all wrong. Not the writing part, but my emotional approach to the writing. And, for the most part, this particular book, this particular project, has been an exercise in how not to do it the hard, dysfunctional, depressed way.
It hasn't been easy. I quit on the whole thing at least twice -- once for five months. But in general, I'm recognizing my negative thoughts, and dismissing them. I'm enlisting the help of my friends and colleagues every step of the way. I'm talking about the process publicly, without shame! I'm not slogging through mud, I'm not hammering against a closed door. I'm not writing this book sideways, I'm writing it head on, boldly, with love and humor, with compassion and all the intelligence I can bring to it.
The energy is completely different.
Plus, it's going to be a really, really good book -- and you will enjoy reading it!
Doing it Right
Habit dies hard. Yesterday, after I printed out the manuscript of this Reader's Draft, I found myself once again listening to my old fear and failure tapes; scratchy ancient reel-to-reels that say that nobody will help me with the next steps toward publication. Eight-tracks that intone over and over how much my book sucks. Tapes that say ... oh, just the old, endless loops of yuck. No need to repeat them here.
But I listened for a while, and then, a little bored with the repetitious recitation of things that aren't true, I turned them off. Those tapes were recorded on archaic equipment. I don't even have the technology to effectively play them anymore. I'm moving on, moving smoothly though my To Do list. Next, I need to find a few more good readers.
I feel fabulous. Hoorah for THE OAKLANDERS! Hoorah for me!