Monday, September 13, 2010

Why I Write: Or, Why I Will Write Soon

Writing is like making love, but it's also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it's like making love while having a tooth pulled. ~ Dean Koontz

Exactly eleven months and two days after I'd given birth to our daughter, my husband and I were arguing. We were growing louder and more immature by the second when out of frustration and self-preservation, my husband took his head briefly in his hands and then shook them at me like a saner version of Kosmo Cramer. "You have got to write!" He shouted.

It had the same effect as a concerned friend begging lowly to an addict, You've got to quit drinking or You've got to get some help. Not writing was making me curt, ornery, and even a bit depressed.

Three years earlier, I'd attended a writing conference in South Carolina with a mere ten pages of an historical novel--the product of an idea that had been brewing in my brain for years. At the end of my sit-down with a reputable editor (formerly with Algonquin Books) he set my pages down on the table between us and looked at me directly. "Have you got more?" He asked.

"No," I answered, embarrassed. "That's it."

"Well, a year from now, when you finish it, you need to start shopping for agents. I think you've got a really publishable work here."

A year and a half later I finished the novel and followed the editor's advice. I did my research, and within six months I was choosing between four literary agents who'd offered to represent me and my fledgling novel. I went with the older agent: a man whose success and longevity in the business I'd admired, and whose name often popped up beneath the word "Producer" in the credits of several blockbuster action films. I didn't expect for my novel to be bought quickly, of course, but I'd been on such a lucky streak with the whole thing--my first novel, several offers of representation, the rarity of it all--that there was a tinny voice in my head whispering It'll happen. You're on a roll.

Six months passed. Then another six months. Then a year. The publisher rejection letters I insisted my agent send me poured in. Despite the occasional compliment, it was the negative that stuck with me: "Not right for my list." "A little old-fashioned." And my personal favorite: "We could've done a great job with this a few years back." Merely the stuff of experience, I told myself. I began new work, tried somewhat unsuccessfully to shore up my confidence, to take strength from the many failed-then-finally-published writers before me. Everyone goes through this, I reasoned.

Then, in the Fall of 2008, I got pregnant... and shortly thereafter lost the power to write. Whatever you want to call it--the creative spark, the Muse, my literary mojo--was simply swallowed up by Baby Brain Freeze. All the supportive comments from my writer friends who were already parents, the "Just think about how much you'll have to write about!" and "Your creativity will blossom!" did nothing to rouse my creative will. Though it was arguably the most important physical and emotional transition of my life, I felt no urge to write about the experience. I pushed aside my literary life and immersed myself in reading and thinking only about baby. Or at least I tried.

So when my husband shouted, I stopped. I didn't even have to take a breath. "You're right, " I told him. And he was--I needed to write like I needed to take my first shower in days or to sit down and eat a proper supper. Not doing so was making me mean.

I began by writing letters to my infant daughter, and no matter how sporadic, it is the act of channeling thought to fingertips, fear and hope and love to the page, that has brought me back from the abyss. Started the thaw. Revved my writer's engine. In doing so, I'm not making any great strides. God knows I'm still a bit paralyzed by the fact that my novel may never get published, that as the mother of a now one year-old, it may be years before I again have the opportunity for totally unencumbered writing time.

Today, my literary agent finally returned an email message I'd sent him over a month ago, and then re-sent two weeks later, just to be sure he'd received it. An apology: He's got several unfinished manuscripts due at the same time. He's having surgery soon, a hip replacement. He'll call me some time next week.

And what will I tell him? That the only writing I've accomplished in the past twenty-one months has been an occasional blog posting, handwritten "thank you" notes for baby shower gifts, and the random-yet-inspired letters to my daughter? Maybe.

Or perhaps I'll tell him that I've written this piece. That I'm coming back. That no matter the life change, the anxiety, the exhaustion--I have got to write.