I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how long the writing process can take. Will Allison, author of What You Have Left and Long Drive Home just did a guest spot in the Writing Room, a board I moderate at Barnes & Noble’s website. He talked a bit about the difficulty of a fiction writer writing under deadline: “The biggest challenge I faced in writing Long Drive Home was having a deadline—the book was already under contract. I should have known better, because one thing I do know, from 20+ years experience, is that I’m a slow writer if nothing else.” (He details this and more about his writing process for this novel in his article, “My Editor, My Wife.”) Will’s book is powerful and this back story got me thinking about other books I love that meandered ahead in the slow lane, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which took nine years to write.
I’m a slow writer, too. Sometimes, it simply takes time to get those words on the page just right. Other times, I write myself into a corner and step away from a story until I figure out the problem. Some significant time can pass in these instances. I recently finished a story that I had started in 2007. Back in 2007, I only made it half way through the first draft, just up to a turning point in the story. I knew it was a turning point; something was going to change but I didn’t know what. I’d pull that story out every so often, read through it and get to that turning point again and still be at a loss. Then, one recent revisit, I knew the solution and I simply raced forward. It was like some little stone was stuck in the gears and I finally dislodged it.
All of this, of course, wouldn’t be much of a problem if I didn’t have a desire to move ahead in my writing. Yet, I don’t know any committed writer—myself included—who would be able to shrug her shoulders and think, “Eh, if this doesn’t work out, there’s always something else.” In Negotiating With the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes about what separates the would-be writer from the writer, “Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”
When we are driven, we have to negotiate, re-negotiate and make peace with the peculiarities of our own creative process with the pressures, responsibilities and expectations that come with life—those others place on us and those we place on ourselves.