Lately, I have recurring dreams that I am back in high school, only I am my age and I have somehow forgotten that I was enrolled in school until it is the very end of the semester and I realize I have to take a final exam. A final exam that I have not even begun to prepare for since: 1) I haven’t studied; 2) I never went to class; and 3) I never even knew I was a student. In the most recent dream I had, I showed up for a math final (unaware, of course, until that moment that I was actually enrolled in the class), breathless and upset, and began arguing with my teacher:
“It’s very irresponsible of you, Jennifer,” he said as he handed me the test, “not to show up for class this year.”
“But I had no idea I was even supposed to be in class,” I said reasonably, “since, after all, I already graduated from high school years ago.”
He simply sighed. “I don’t know how you expect to get along in life if you aren’t even able to be responsible for a math class.”
“You don’t understand,” I said, beginning to lose my temper. “I am a grown woman. I have an MFA. I am an author. I’ve written six books. I’m working on another. I know how to get along in life and be responsible.”
And then I woke up.
In other dreams, I am running down a school hallway, a schedule clutched in my hand—a schedule that enumerates classes I have missed for weeks and that I only just discovered I'm taking. In others, I am trying to find a copy of that elusive schedule so that I can determine where my classes are actually located. In others, I am sitting, with great guilt, through a class, trying hopelessly to catch up on a semester’s worth of work. I am always the oldest one there, everyone else being sixteen or seventeen, and I am always, always caught unaware and unprepared.
And then it hits me. I am suffering from Next Book Syndrome. As if writing the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth book wasn’t completely terrifying enough, now I must worry about writing the seventh. I thought, of course, after finishing my first one, The Ice Master, that anything else from that point forward would be easy. Perhaps easy isn’t the most accurate word. But, with that first book behind me, I thought I was in the clear. But with each book, the process starts over again. (It didn't help that, for my third book, I switched from nonfiction to fiction.)
Right now I am researching the seventh book, which is hard enough to work yourself into doing when you know quite well what lies ahead: at some point you hit your stride and you go along fine, until suddenly you wake up one morning and realize that you are finished with the research and the outlining and the organization—I mean that there is now nothing more you can do, even though you have tried desperately to think of something, anything else in order to delay the inevitable—and now you are ready to begin the writing.
You might even be inspired. I certainly have great spurts of that, and I am constantly writing the story in my head while seemingly doing something else. But that moment you first sit down with the blank page, you freeze. Or I freeze. And I start thinking that all the books that came before were clearly flukes and that I don’t even remember how I got through the writing of them and how it is a miracle that they are even in print and how it will take an even greater miracle for me to be able to write another one.
My mother, the seasoned writer, assures me that I am not the only author to go through this. She says, in fact, that she also struggles with the Next Book Syndrome with every book she writes. This, of course, does absolutely nothing to reassure me. But it does remind me that I’m not alone.
So what do I do? I plunge head first, and write whatever comes to mind, even if it’s garbage and even if I have to delete it the very next day. As long as I’m writing something down, I find it gets the muscle moving again. Or, if that doesn’t work, I will write something else—a blog post, a facebook update, a tweet, a scene for a novel I want to write, or a funny moment for a screenplay or TV script that has nothing to do with Hollywood in the 1940s (the setting of book seven). Something creative and fun and free flowing, and something that will—hopefully—kick-start the writing. I am not talking procrastination here. Ask any full-time, stay-at-home writer, and they will tell you about the temptations of checking your email (15 times every half hour), playing with the cats (who eventually start hiding from you), or running to the mail box just to see once again if any packages have come. There are so many things that can keep you from writing, if you just think of them. I once put off an entire day of writing because I couldn’t stand to think about the crumbs on the kitchen counter, three rooms away and completely out of sight of my office. And I am much more Oscar Madison than Felix Unger, so I know it is not a “neat” thing. It is, instead, a writer thing, and I have to fight that procrastination tendency unless I’m really and truly deep into my writing. And when that happens, you will have a hard time getting me to focus on anything else.
It is true that writing feeds writing. I always find that if I am writing other creative things, my book writing is that much stronger, more vivid, and more ready and willing to spill out of me. As a rule, though, I avoid journal writing and lengthy emails because I find both exhaust me of that creative energy and don’t leave anything left over for all my other projects.
Even as I write this, you see, I should be writing, or at least outlining, that next book. But I know—just know—that if I take the time to write this piece, I will really feel, once and for all, like sitting down to concentrate on it…
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society