It has always struck me as paradoxical that we writers–who are among the most impatient people on the planet–spend our days doing work akin to watching water boil. What could possibly involve less instant gratification than writing a novel? Or working for months (or years) on a single short story? Or slowly, painstakingly picking our way through piles of research looking for the right detail, the perfect gem, only to discard the rest? We have minds like fireflies, attention spans that wander…how else would we dream up our characters and their lives? And yet the harnessing of that light, that attention, requires an almost physical effort to stay in one spot, to work slowly, carefully. To whittle, to carve, to chip away at the words on the page. To remain dissatisfied. To throw away perfectly good work if it isn’t serving the story. Not to leap ahead — to daydreams of publication, of glory, of book parties and appearances on Charlie Rose.
Here’s the thing–and believe me, I speak from hard-won experience: That’s not the best part. The publication, the glory (such as it is), the parties and the media frenzy (hah!) of a book’s publication is not the best part–far from it. I know this is hard for those who haven’t experienced it to believe. I know there’s some eye-rolling going on out there. But it’s true–and not only is it true, it’s the worst possible thing for the work itself to leap ahead to what might happen to it out there in the world. I remember, years ago, working on my first piece for The New Yorker. It was a personal history piece about my father–a story I had wanted to write for a long time–and after I got the assignment, I became completely and utterly stuck. I was–even though I hate the word–blocked. Each morning, I sat down at my desk and instead of working on the piece, I thought about The New Yorker. Which issue would it come out in? Would there be an illustration? A photo? I pictured my words in New Yorker font before I had even written them.
I had to shock myself out of that mental torpor and into a creative state. I played tricks on myself–writing in the middle of the night, which is something I never do. Writing before that first cup of coffee in the morning. I pushed myself past the wall of impatience and into that place where all that matters are setting down the words on the page. After all, in the hermetic, odd, often lonely and certainly out-of-step existence of the writer, setting the words down on the page better be the best part. The other stuff is too fleeting–if it happens at all–and unreal.