Why I’m still writing this book

MHC at night tallI am still writing a book, you know. In case you were wondering, I actually haven’t given up yet. I write every day, without fail. Anne LaMott told me to treat it like a debt of honor, and that’s what I do. Anne also said to commit to finishing a thing that you start. So I am.

But is that really why I am still writing this book? So that I finish something I started? A friend of mine always tells me to check my motivation, if I want to know what I’m really up to. And writing an entire book — a Regency romance novel, no less — is a pretty wacky thing for a grown woman to pursue, really. On the face of it.

So I am checking my motivation. And here is what I have found.

The main reason I am still writing this book is because I love doing it. It feels incredibly good to have started this thing, and to be seeing it through to its conclusion. It is a hard thing, and I am doing it. I am not particularly awesome at it — yet — but I am still doing it. I generally hate doing things that I am not automatically good at.  But I see this as a matter of faithfully serving out my apprenticeship, which is not a thing I have a very good track record of doing. So that feels pretty unrelentingly good.

So I keep writing, because I enjoy doing things that make me feel good.

The second big reason I am still writing this book is because I want to publish it. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. I want to see this book get published and read by strangers. Ideally, lots and lots of strangers. I do not wish to self-publish it, or to create a 99-cent e-book of it, or to type each chapter as an episodic series of blog posts that you can read for free. I want to write it, revise it, revise it again, and revise it some more. And then I want to submit it to several agents, one of whom will like it enough to take it on, and who will then sell it to a publishing house. I want all of that to happen.

I understand that I am probably supposed to be less up front about this reason. I am probably supposed to dance around it and hedge and self-deprecate and say maybe maybe maybe but probably not but do you guys really think I could? But I say fuck that shit. I want to finish this romance novel and have it get published and have people love it and my characters and want to read more and quit my job and have a Facebook fan page and do all of that.

Do I expect all that to happen? No, not really. But I want it. And I see no reason to play coy about it.

Why bother? Life is incredibly short. Fuck that shit. I want to be a successful published author. What do you want?

When I was at Mount Holyoke, I heard stories about a professor who tended to have a transformative effect on his students. His name was Leonard DeLonga, he was an art professor, and he is dead now, and I know that he is still widely, deeply, profoundly missed. I never had a class with him.

But I keep thinking about the story that I heard most often about him: That he would, at some point in the semester, walk around the room and point to each student, look that student in the eye, and ask “What do you want to do?” He would let them answer, and whether the answer was “join the Peace Corps” or “move to Paris” or “run for President” or “get married and have a raft of children” he would say the same thing. “Do it,” he would say, and then he would move on to the next student.

It sounds a little ridiculous, but every single one of my friends who told this story — and there were many — would glow in this particular way when they came back from this class, the class in which this art professor did this thing. And I was never even in the damn class, never even was in the same room with the man, as far as I know, and his voice is echoing in my head to this day. “Do it.”

I think that it is entirely possible that he started doing this when he learned that he had an inoperable brain tumor. It would make sense, really. What do you want to do? Do it, damn you. I think he was right. Also, I think that you will not do that thing if you do not set out to actually do it. You have to actually stake a claim, set out on that path, buy the gear, wear the sign, make your intentions known, risk failure. That thing you want to do is not going to happen accidentally, or by chance. Your chances of success may be slim, but they will be even less if you do not stand by the road and stick your goddamn thumb out. No matter how stupid you think you might look.

So then yesterday, because I am getting very close to hitting my total manuscript word count of 90,000 words, and therefore am close to going back to the beginning and revising the crap out of this thing, to bringing it one step closer to the actual feathered thing that I have in my mind and can see so clearly, I spent a few minutes yesterday researching the next steps.

I started looking for a critique group. I joined the national and local chapters of my chosen genre’s professional organization. I started making plans to attend the national conference. I started thinking about contests I could submit it to. I started researching agents and publishing houses.

But then I started getting perhaps just a little depressed and downtrodden about it all.

Because I started thinking about THE ODDS.

Now, here’s the thing: You should never, ever, ever allow yourself to think about THE ODDS. Because this is the truth — and listen up, because this is important — this is not the goddamn lottery. You are not subject to some sadistical statistical demigod of yes-or-no in the sky. You get to try your hardest, and then try some more. And maybe that’s all — maybe that is in fact all you get, in the end. So you damn well better choose something to pursue that you actually enjoy the doing of, because you might never get to taste the attaining of the actual goal.

An example: I love to knit. But I do not love to wear, display, or otherwise use the things that I knit. Nor has it historically been all that important to me to give, sell, or donate the items I knit. For most of my knitting life, for all I cared, I could just destroy every single thing I knit a moment after it has been completed, like some sort of Tibetan sand mandala made out of sticks and string.

It’s the making of the thing that I enjoy, the actual doing — it’s the feeling of the fiber running through my fingers and onto the bamboo needles. It’s the sense that I am doing something that people — women, in fact — have been doing for hundreds of years. I am doing that same thing that they did! I love that. I seriously get off on it. And then I am done, and I have this hat or these socks or this shawl or whatever, and I immediately lose interest and want to move on to the next thing.

However, I have recently changed how I knit. I now give most of my knitted things to my best friend, Melissa. I make things intentionally for her. She wears them and loves them and they make her feel loved, because she is. That is what they are there for: to make her feel warm and loved. This practice enriches my knitting. By which I mean: I enjoy it a whole hell of a lot more. And remember: I already derived an almost erotic joy from this hobby. So giving Melissa the things that I knit makes it practically a spiritual act. I am quite entirely not kidding.

Writing is like that for me. I feel more alive when I am writing. I sleep better at night when I have written that day. I know what my place is in this world by the fact of my writing, and by the things that I write. I don’t need other people to read what I write, but I want them to, because it makes me even happier than merely writing would.

So I want you to read this. I want you to read the book I am writing. What’s more, I want to get paid for writing, and I want strangers to read what I write. And to like it.

I don’t need it. But I want it.


Here’s why.

Because when I read something good, my palms throb. Did you think I was kidding about that? Because I was absolutely not even slightly kidding about that. It usually happens when I am reading a story in which the protagonist suffers some sort of emotional pain — usually romantic pain. I have no idea what causes it. I read a story that has a really meaty bit of emotional anguish; my palms ache.  I have never once heard or seen anyone else ever talk or write about this happening to them. But it is real. It happens to me. And it is the feeling that I am chasing every single time I pick up a book to read.

Make my palms throb, I whisper to each book. Please. I am longing for it.

I do not know what causes it, but I do know that I love that books can affect me this way.

That’s why I’m writing a romance novel, you see. Because nothing else has ever made my palms ache the way a good love story has.

Jane Eyre does it, when Jane comes back and Rochester is blind, and widowed, and he cries.

Persuasion does it, when Captain Wentworth writes Anne Elliot a letter on his way out of Bath, and he tells her he is half agony, half hope, and she chases him down.

Harlequin romance novels have done it. This one, in particular, was the first book that I read that ever made my palms ache. At the end. When Lazar turns his head away from Clair, because of his guilt and remorse and shame. I was fourteen when I read this book. Go ahead, look at the cover. And don’t be fooled. Therein lies a fabulously solid love story.

It is also true that when I read a good love story, I pause, and look up, and hold the moment, just loving the fact that I am in it. I am in the middle of it, and I know these characters, and I care what happens to them, and that is such fucking alchemy that I almost can’t bear it.

You made up a story. You wrote it down. At some time later — maybe a few months later, maybe 250 years later — it made my hands ache, right there in the middle of my palms.

I do not understand this. I don’t understand a single bit of it. But I want in.

I am almost 40 years old now, and I have had a lot of those moments in my life. My palms have ached many, many times, as I raced breathlessly through the last twenty pages of a novel, lying in bed at three o’clock in the morning.

I am almost 40 years old now, and I feel like I owe something, now.

I believe that I need to add to the world’s inventory of palm-throbbing moments. I want to give you a reason to stay up all night, and I want you to close a book, finally, at four o’clock in the morning, and rub your aching palms — or whatever it is you normal people do — and smile in the dark with a sense of deep satisfaction.

Not because I am some sort of narcissistic control freak.

I am that, too, but there is more to it than that.

I want to do that for you because other people have done it for me. And I owe it to you. Or I owe it to the writers who gave it to me. I don’t know precisely who I owe it to. I just know I owe.

I’m in debt, and I need to pay up.

I owe you at least one good, solid, heart-wrenching, palm-throbbing moment. And that’s why I’m still writing this book. That’s why I want it to be published.

I want to do that to you. I want to do that for you.

Also, because I want to be a successful, published author. But also because I owe you.

So I’m going to keep on writing.


(Updates: Finished the book. Got an agent.)

19 Thoughts.

  1. I am so glad you wrote this.

    As for the odds…it’s so scary to admit that you want it and that you think you deserve it. So scary to even think of claiming it. The good news is that passion sells. Voice sells. You have both in spades. Also: sample size of one, but if I can do it, so can you. So can anyone.

  2. Fabulous post – thank you. And I couldn’t agree more with Erin about voice and passion. Never risk polishing that voice out of existence in the search for “perfection” – it’s too good to lose.

  3. The knitting thing – I so relate to that. I’ve gone through many phases of different creative paths and when I was about 25 I discovered Kaffe Fassett (at the V&A no less) and I was off on a few years long knitting kick. I knitted all kinds of amazing super bright sweaters with fabulous patterns and luscious textures. I loved the act of doing it but I almost never wore them – I’m much more of a navy blue sweatshirt kind of girl.

  4. Beth,

    I love this. I love the passion and the directness. I love the motivation you’ve given me. Oh, for crying out loud, I think you’re going to make me a read a romance book.

  5. Ahh!!!! I completely, totally, whole-heartedly relate to this post. 110%. I, too, am in the middle of writing a book. And it is a horrible, wonderful, gut-wrenching experience. The odds are immense and insane, but there is that chance that we will make it, but ONLY if the book is finished! Don’t give up, keep slogging through. I am also looking for critique groups and agents and hoping against hope that I beat the odds and come out on top smelling like best-selling roses.
    “A writer’s courage can easily fail him . . . I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
    – E.B. White

  6. Hi Beth, That was most enjoyable. My palm throbs at love stories and movies too! I don’t think I have ever said that before but it is an amazing feeling. Best of luck to you and look forward to reading more.

  7. wonderful post! inspiring in so many ways.
    Louise Allen’s comment reminded me of seeing Natalie Babbitt recently, as part of a panel at a documentary screening at RISD. questions were posed about writing for an audience- whether it be editors or simply as an adult writing for children. she not only rejected the notion of writing with editors or a niche market in mind but staunchly opposed the concept of being an adult writing “for” children. that said, she admitted to spending an entire week getting a particular sentence just so! so revise away- but, for your own inner critic :)
    Do it!

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  9. Wow! This is one of the best posts I have read in a long time. Go you! I am also about to turn 40 and I wrote on my blog that my number 1 goal this year is to find an agent – so that I can…. PUBLISH! I am all in favor of just stating the thing you want and then going after it. The odds will melt at your feet!

  10. I’m with you on this: this fear, this love, this trauma of back and forth. The insidious odds are so present that I could probably claim them as dependents on my tax return. Gah.
    But you, you’ve written 90,000 words. You are fabulous and accomplished! Don’t look back. Don’t give the shadows time to catch up. You have heard your calling and you’re answering it; you are remarkable. and courageous. and strong.
    I’m ready to pre-order your book!

  11. I really loved this post! You ARE a writer! I’ve never had my palms ache from a tragic romance novel but I remember sobbing my guts out at the end of “The Bridges of Madison County” – the scene in the truck at the end with the rain pouring down and the windshield wipers beating madly – that was almost too much to bear!!!

  12. I found this post off of the yummygoods link, and boy was it worth the read. You go for it! Passion, determination, and NOT GIVING UP are usually good enough to make dreams come true given time. I think the odds thing is mainly that people give up before they hit gold, the work gets too hard–or they aren’t willing to get and respond to the criticism they need to really hone their art til it develops into its full beauty. All of which sound like they won’t be impedibments to you! Good for you!–I have had a deep sense for a long time that I am supposed to write a book, but I haven’t begun. I hope that I can be as faithful to that sense, sometime in the future, as you are expressing here. Best wishes with your work!

  13. Hi Beth, Thank you for the honest description of your dream and the road you’re taking to achieve it. What an excellent use of my Saturday afternoon… hmm, where did I put that outline? My best to you!

  14. OK, I found this because I’d just gone to a tai-chi class with a couple of friends and looked up tai-chi online and found tai-chi for fybromyalgia (which I don’t have, but I do have arthritis, and it sucketh large rocks). And here’s this wicked little essay about writing, which passion I also perpetrate along with illustration. Not artsy fartsy art, illustration. I tell stories. I’ve always told stories, I just never thought of myself as someone who could actually get them published and read by others until recently (I was born the year Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was, not quite the Dark Ages, but close). I do not like Victorian romance or romance of any sort (I’m more of a YA/fantasy/Harry Potter/Percy Jackson/refugee from Mirkwood/swordbroad sort of person)… but your essay nails the orc right on the head with a plus five battleaxe. Translation: you said it perfectly. Your tale of the professor was awesome.

    Every writing course, every writing book, will tell you “The Odds”. They don’t often mention that lots of people who haven’t done their homework are included in those odds. If you put in the hours, you will be excellent. If you persist, you will be excellent.

    I have just been following the Iditarod, the 1150 mile epic dogsled “race” across the wildest, most insane terrain on the planet. They call it a race, but it is a Hero Journey (in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word). Each person who makes that Journey faces Obstacles, finds Helpers, draws strength from deep inner Sources… or quits. They all have put in their Hours and become Excellent, whether they win or not. And Persistence? This year’s winner, John Baker, is from a tiny Inupiat village far off the Alaska road system (there’s no way you can become excellent off the road system, they say). He has run the race 17 times. The last time a Native Alaskan (these are the guys who invented the dogsled) won was 1976. The last time an “Eskimo” won was…never. He persisted. He practiced. He learned the most excellent dog care and training. He persisted. And now he has become an inspiration for a culture often beset by poverty and high suicide rates, and particularly an inspiration to the next generation.

    What do you want to DO? DO it. You may not be able to quit your day job just yet, but if you put in the hours, hone your skills, and persist… you will be excellent.

    Thanks again for the excellent article! And don’t stop writing!

  15. I thought you were awesome when I met you at the RITA’s and now I KNOW it. Great post, so motivational.

  16. I came across your piece searching for information about aching palms…this is the first time I have come across another person who shares this strange and painful but beautiful phenomenon. My palms ache especially during intensely emotional and heartbreaking movies, from reading devastating books about love, and very occasionally about real life. I share your pleasure at this strong physical sensation of being deelpy, deeply moved. It is delicious and intense and it thrills me every time. Keep writing Beth! If you can write something that makes your palms ache and throb then you know you have something true…and I look forward to the pleasure/pain of reading it! All the best.

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