There are days when writing makes me feel like this guy. Actually, every day I write I feel like this guy, at least at the beginning. That’s because beginning is the hardest part, contrary to that annoying song by Tom Petty which claimed that waiting is the hardest part. (actually, I’m much more on board with what Fran Lebowitz had to say about waiting: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” But enough said.)
I was on a panel at the magnificent and life-altering Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference last weekend during which we were supposed to talk about writing rituals, and things we had learned on the way to becoming professional writers. Here is what I have learned, in that the following four things are the bedrock of my complete lack of moral fiber when it comes to writing:
And angst. Don’t forget the angst.
I had coffee with a novelist friend who doesn’t write crime fiction while I was at the conference. I asked her how it was going. She said, “My second novel almost killed me. Actually, it may have killed me. I might be walking around dead right now. My brain is so fried I wouldn’t really know the difference at this point. Writing sucks. Did your second novel almost kill you? Because mine almost killed me. Have I mentioned that?”
I said, “Dude, every moment I worked on my second novel, I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. Some days I did both.”
She laughed in recognition of this mental state. “Third one’s a piece of cake, though, right?”
“A piece of shit, more like,” I said.
I said I would always remember what Jan Burke told me, when I confessed how hard it was to be writing my second novel, back when I was writing my second novel. Here is what she said, “Yeah, they all suck. It’s always excruciating. Don’t expect it to ever get any better.”
My non-crime-writing novelist friend laughed again… the bitter laugh of the completely hosed.
“I think that was really cruel of Jan Burke to say, don’t you?” I continued. “I mean, couldn’t she have lied? Couldn’t she have said, ‘kid, here’s the thing–the second one almost kills you, and you won’t know whether to cry or throw up, most days, but after that it’s like falling off a log. No problem. Just get through this one, and the rest of them you can write in your sleep with both hands tied behind your back,’ right? I mean, would it have killed her to lie about that?”
My non-crime-writing friend said, “So now you’re laying that same horrible view of my future on me, even though you’re still pissed with Jan Burke for telling you the truth. Thanks so much.”
I nodded. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Jan Burke… it’s just that I might have thrown up a few fewer times if she’d lied in that instance, you know?”
“Yeah. Aren’t we the lucky ones?”
“We are. We could be throwing up and not published.”
“That could still happen.”
“Yeah, any day now,” I said.
“So how was it writing your third book?” asked my friend.
“Shit,” I said. “Unmitigated shit. And I hate the fourth book already.”
“How much of the fourth one have you written?”
“About a page and a half,” I said. “And it’s already a stinking pile of unreadable crap.”
“You know what Dorothy Parker said are the two best things you can do to help out aspiring writers?” I asked.
“No, what?” asked my friend.
“She said the second most helpful thing you can do is buy them a copy of Strunk and White.”
“What’s the first most helpful?”
“‘Shoot them now, while they’re still happy.'”
Then we spent the next twenty minutes talking about how everyone who sold more books than we do should die, unless they were really nice to us. Successful novelists who don’t know us should be loaded onto a bus and driven off the edge of the Grand Canyon, we figured. With bells on.
This is why I love hanging out with fellow writers. We’re all nuts in similar ways, which makes me feel better.
We are none of us exactly Little Mary Sunshine.
But as I said to my stepmom a few weeks ago, sitting down to right every morning is like knowing you have to punch your way through a brick wall. Except every morning you realize again that the bricks are made of styrofoam, as soon as you screw up the courage to throw that first roundhouse.
On the other hand, I still have a page and a half of book four. So, you know, it’s not quite like falling off a log yet. Or maybe it’s like falling off a log with both hands tied behind my back.
And also, I am a whiny little bitch.
‘Ratis, what do you tell yourself when it’s time to get started? How do you talk yourselves out of believing everything is doomed to failure, and that it’s time for The Rapture? Inquiring Cornelias want to know…