I know exactly when I froze up on The Undressing of America: when the publisher bought it. Through my whole career I've been able to keep a pretty low profile, hiding behind modest expectations. Writing comic books, I could win the approval of my editors and most readers by meeting the expectations of the genre in a fairly workmanlike way; subtleties of technique and depth of character were appreciated by a select few but generally not missed if I didn't deliver. Writing pop-culture oriented humor, I had to be original and funny, but no one was really paying attention to the writing as writing. Writing non-fiction about TV comedy, violent entertainment, and comic books, I had to show that I knew my material, saw it in some unique ways, and could construct a convincing argument; whatever literary virtues I brought were always viewed as an extra, worthy of an "and it's surprisingly well-written, too." But I avoided putting myself in positions where I would be judged on the potency of my sentences, the reality of my characters, the truth of my voice. I was a writer who managed not to be judged on his writing.
The writing mattered to me. I always much preferred hearing a fan say, "You write the most human characters in superhero comics," or, "I really like this line," than, "Your Green Lantern stories were really true to the classic DC tradition." But what mattered most I kept partly concealed. I found a safe place where my efforts could be noticed if readers wanted to notice them, but if they didn't I wouldn't feel so exposed in my shortfall. I could always say to myself, "Well, the goal is to deliver a solid superhero story, and didn't I do that?" This protected the part of me that felt was most precious from the world's judgment and indifference. Which was swell, except that it also held me back from really writing as well as I could.
I sold the proposal for my last book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, based on my non-fiction credits and my knowledge of both comics and American cultural history. But the book turned out to demand a lot more, because at the core of it were four intertwining and powerful human stories: the two businessmen who had pulled themselves up from Lower East Side poverty to lay the foundations of the comic book business, and the two nebbishy teenagers from Cleveland who created Superman, the idea that sparked that business to life. They were dramatic stories, suspenseful stories, and in three cases pretty tragic stories, and I had to pull out all the abilities I had to tell them well. As a result, I started getting a new kind of attention. Blurbs from novelists I respected, reviews that led off with the quality of my writing, readers who said they never thought they could care about the history of comics except for the power of my telling. And finally Eric Chinsky, a well-respected editor from the well-respected house of FSG, contacted my agent and said he'd love to work with me. He and I had lunch, and he made it clear that although the subject matter of my next book would matter, of course, what he wanted me to come up with was an idea that would enable me to showcase my own talents as a writer. For the first time in my career, an editor didn't want an idea that could be dependably well executed by me. He wanted me.
Which meant that I was going to be on display. I as a writer was going to please him or disappoint him—and if I pleased him well enough to see print, then I was going to be applauded or criticized or (worst of all) ignored by readers. As I chose my topic and worked on the proposal I was able to distract myself from that terrible fact by worrying about whether I'd found an idea worthy of publication. But as soon as he said "yes" I had nowhere to hide.
So now I find myself able to write pages and pages of the book as long as I tell myself, "Oh, this is just a rough draft to get the story down, no one's going to see this." But when I start writing sentences with the intention of sending them to my editor, the weight of expectation brings me to knees within a few pages. Suddenly I find myself unable to believe that there can be such a thing as "just telling the story," as "just explaining the facts." In fact, I can no longer believe that there is such a thing as "just a sentence." Every moment must be as vivid to the reader as the sharpest memories of his or her own life. Every line must flash with the fire of divine inspiration. Every word must add to the wit and poignancy and irony and profundity of the whole.
Because if they don't, I really suck.