“Book writing, by comparison, feels invisible. It is countless hours spent alone, perfecting ideas that are too complex to explain to strangers you meet at cocktail parties. It is enforced humbleness (or at least enforced daily stomping on that ego and desire for affirmation); being willing to continue toiling when you’re pretty sure anyone else would have shipped by now, because you and the gatekeepers you’ve installed around you want to make sure you get the damn thing right.” – Rachel Hills, Invisible Work
Right now, I am in a grip of quiet terror. Or not so quiet, if you’re my husband or best friend and are accustomed to my daily freak-outs. Having let the dust settle on the exciting news that I am to be an author, that the dream I had started chasing a few years ago was about to become a reality, that something in my life was going somewhere AT LAST, I am now dealing with a frightening aftermath.
And that aftermath is the constant worry that I won’t be able to replicate the ease in which I wrote my first novel. And when I say ease, I am not talking about the effort, the time, the thought process of concocting a storyline and characters that would be both believable and compelling enough to warrant the turning of a page.
I mean the ease of writing without pressure. Without knowing what would happen when and if it finished. Without the commitments of a contract, or the advance sitting in my bank compelling me to work for it. Without a deadline, or waiting publishers, or even an audience whom I have excitedly shared my book news with.
The reality is, there’s no way out of that worry for me. At least right now anyway. I have under a year to write a novel, to create new characters, share their stories, get to know them as intimately as I did the last ones so that they eventually – in some alternate writer’s universe – become real.
The worry is mostly based on what Rachel Hills terms invisible work. Work that sees her like a duck in the water, “peddling furiously beneath the surface, but seemingly standing still”. The kind of work that now typifies my days and nights: sitting in front of a computer, compelling words to come. But they don’t.
Instead I have to contend with working against my own thoughts and self-doubts. The kind of thoughts that remind me that it took years to write my first novel, writing maybe 15,000 words a year in short weekend-long bursts of productivity then going eight months without even opening the document, whereas now I only have months. Thoughts that have me stress about storylines, even though I didn’t have one when I started writing the first book and just let my characters take me on a journey through their lives, after I had sufficiently grasped the melodrama in their heads. Thoughts that remind me that it’s not only invisible, but solitary.
Hills struggles with not being able to talk about it also. For me, it’s because it’s all internal. Not because I have the kind of new, smart, intellectual ideas that will make up her first book, but because I have virtually shunned company to meet my deadline. I have to tell people I cannot come out to lunch because I have to write, and then I have to deal with the anxiety of them walking away thinking I am sort of workaholic when essentially I just sit there watching TV or reading magazines or buying things on Ebay. Waiting for a fictitious teenager whose name, age and school I have scrawled on a notebook to wake up so I can follow his/her day in my head, then put it out on my laptop.
The above excerpt from Hills’ latest blog post on Musings of an Inappropriate Woman is typical of what I am feeling right now. The angst, the worry, the concern. The desire to emerge from my wordsmith slumber to protest that I am doing something – anything – to justify the MANY hours I spend typing away at a keyboard or staring at a screen. The eagerness to have my work come out just so I can validate the effort and worry that is now consuming me constantly – maybe to some sort of reader acclaim so I can feel encouraged to keep pursuing this difficult stage of my work despite the fear and self-doubt.
I’ve questioned how I can possibly utilise the excitement of being published to sit down and wait out the period of editing, production, cover design, marketing plans and the like (before I even see the fruits of my labour) to my advantage. How I can use that waiting period to emulate the toil of work #1 into work #2.
People conversing with me now tell me that it must be easier, writing a second book. But if anything, it’s harder. It’s harder because I have a commitment now. I have ‘gatekeepers’, just like Hills’, who encourage me to work and perfect and fine-tune, all the while knowing that they will then go over that perfection I tried to achieve with a fine-tooth comb and find more flaws that I will then have to re-work in a cycle so painful it burns. Not just because of ego, but because of effort and heart and soul, and the watching eyes of family and friends who are proud of me, but who don’t understand the process that sees me cut myself off, resigned to an abyss of my own making.
It turns out that I am my own gatekeeper, as Hills must be also, because although she’s ‘peddling furiously’, I know she’s commandeering the peddles: knowing that it is the same issues that make her want to perfect whatever she puts out, no matter the time or the risk or the struggle.
Sometimes, we force ourselves to stand still, to remain invisible, to turn off. Even though on the inside, we don’t. I don’t stop working when my husband sees me turn off the computer and retire to bed: there’s always a little me in my brain that keeps going, even when I am shaving my legs, dancing at a wedding or buying shoes. A little me who never switches off, but instead spends her time thinking, writing, waiting.
Waiting for the day when a character comes in, tells the brain’s little-me what happened (and if I’m lucky, why it’s so bad), and asks me to write it down. Until then, I just have to wait it out.
My only wish is that my character is not on Lebanese timing. Because even though I am invisibly working 24/7, my gatekeepers (and readers) can only see what’s there on the surface, not under the water.
Or in reality, the stories on the page, not in my head.