The other night, at a dinner party, I had a long conversation with a wonderful new friend about readiness. She’s a highly-regarded photographer who has been working and teaching for thirty-odd years, so she knows something about this. I had been telling her about a former graduate student of mine who published her first book before it was ready. It was a cautionary tale, ending in the second book never being published, and the first book eventually going out of print. I also knew something about this, because I had published my own first book before it was ready. No one could have told me that, at the time. I mean, my literary agent and publisher thought it was ready…so who was I to disagree?
I learned to write in public. On the one hand, it was an enormous privilege. It’s so hard for young writers to get published. I hear bulletins from that front every single day. Nonetheless, if I could have a do-over, career-wise, what I would choose to do over is my own impatience, my own need for validation when I was in my mid-twenties. I would strike my first two novels from the record. Most people don’t even know I wrote them. They’re out-of-print, and I would prefer for them to stay that way. I know my blog readers will accuse me, as you often do, of being too hard on myself. Surely there were good things about those first two books. Several critics even liked them. But I now know: I wasn’t ready.
I remember once interviewing Peter Matthiessen, a literary hero of mine, and with the sweep of his hand, he said of his own work: the first five books aren’t worth reading. At the time, I had written three books and was working on my fourth. I was in my early thirties, Matthiessen was in his seventies. I realized with a jolt that the number of his own books that he was dismissing was higher than the number I had written. It was horrifying, but also edifying. Because what he was really saying is that he had gotten better with each book. He felt more in control of his craft than he had earlier in his writing life. That’s a wonderful thing to be able to feel and to say.
Of course, all of this can only be seen in hindsight. How do we know when something we’re working on is really ready? I think we know by listening. By seeing and hearing the signs around us. By having trusted readers and being unafraid to hear what they have to say. By trusting the little voice inside of us — the quiet one underneath all the fear and insecurity — that tells us we’ve taken this thing as far as we can. For now.