The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing.

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July 16 2010 1:27 PM

What Took You So Long?

The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

There is surely a word—in German, most likely—that means the state of active non-accomplishment. Not just the failure to reach a specific goal, but ongoing, daily failure with no end in sight. Stunted ambition. Disappointed potential. Frustrated and sad and lonely and hopeless and sick to death of one's self.

Whatever it's called, this is what leads people to abandon their goals—people do it every day. And I understand that decision, because I lived in this state of active non-accomplishment for many years.

I wrote the earliest bit of what would become my first novel, Stiltsville, in January of 2000, when I was in my first year of a graduate writing program. In May of 2009, I sold Stiltsville to HarperCollins—the hardcover is due out next month.

This means that the time from my novel's conception to its appearance on store shelves adds up to a staggering 10 years. An entire decade. Between, I graduated and spent a year on fellowship (during which I wrote a lot but only half of it was any good); then there were the teaching years (during which I wrote very little, hardly any of it good); then there were the Internet company years (during which I barely wrote at all).

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Stiltsville is in good company, which is reassuring. There are oodles of novels that took a decade or longer to write—including some famous examples, like Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz spoke in interviews about his own decade of active non-accomplishment. He said that five years into the process, he decided to give up on the novel and start a graduate degree (in what, he didn't say). He said his life improved: no more torture, no more fights with his fiance. Oh, Junot, I thought when I read this, I understand! Still, something pulled him back, and another five years passed, and then he was finally done.

Then he won the Pulitzer, which isn't going to happen to me. And I think I can speak for pretty much anyone who publishes a novel after 10 years: Whether you win awards doesn't matter one bit. The hardest—and therefore the most rewarding—part was just finishing.

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it's not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing.

During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. My "novel" (which had started to wear its own air quotes in my head) became something closer to enemy than lover. A person and his creative work exist in a relationship very much like a marriage: When it's good, it's very good, and when it's bad, it's ugly. And when it's been bad for a long, long time, you start to think about divorce.

My friend Bob, a playwright, told me years ago that he finally understood how writers stop writing. "It happens one day at a time," he said to me, clearly in the midst of a revelation. I'd come to the same realization a few years earlier. In the years between conceiving my book and finishing it, there wasn't one month when I didn't have a writing goal—five pages a week, say, or half of a chapter—but most months, I didn't even come close.

The thing is—one-day-at-a-time is the most painful way for active non-accomplishment to happen. It's the psychological equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. A painter I knew told me once that she'd reached a point when she said goodbye to painting, much the same way Junot Díaz considered doing—she said it was the kindest, most generous thing she'd ever done for herself.

I know a lot of writers, both published and not, and so I know that for every book that makes it to stores, several are never published, and several more are never finished. Many of my friends and acquaintances from graduate school published right away, but most still haven't. No doubt some will publish in the coming years. And some have gone into social work or law or medicine and seem to have left fiction writing behind, happily, like an old hairstyle.

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