I 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.
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.