In the middle of completing my first novel, I copied out Goethe’s famous line “Do not hurry, do not rest” on a scrap and taped it to the wall above my desk. For some reason, it offered comfort as well as obligation.
I of course had spent most of my writing life hurrying, as I felt myself far too old to not have yet completed a book. These were feverish years of writing and rewriting, only to hand the manuscript to my agent time and again and wait an agonizing two to three months before a response. I knew I shouldn’t touch the pages in the interim, that I needed to work on other projects, but didn’t my agent understand that my summer or break (or whatever it was at the time) was my best opportunity to get it done? That the time was now? And that if I did not finish the book before the end of the semester, the end of the year, the dawn of my thirty-third birthday, I might eat myself or drink myself or exercise myself to death? Even now as I repeat these thoughts, I cringe from the whininess that comes from the page. “Do not hurry,” Goethe had said, but I was hurrying myself to the grave, and because I did so, I overlooked the development of my characters, the raw sensation required of my scenes, the simple line of my plot, the intellectual and emotional education gained by the passing of years. I overlooked everything in my haste.
I know I’m not the only one. How many of my friends are currently wringing their hands, worrying over lost time? The never ending “book” hovers over them like a stinking bird, forever beating it wings, their heads full of feathers and rot and the persistent nagging that they aren’t doing enough, not hurrying enough, not writing enough, while the rest of their lives dwindle as a result of a ream of paper and black marks on a page. Despite publication, I have not yet escaped such wringing myself, believing even now that my second book is far too late in coming. “God, I can’t spend another ten years,” my Grub Street students say. A consultee in his seventies asked me how long it might take him to finish his revisions. “I don’t have much time,” he said, implying that his advance in years put an undeniable limit to the process. Of course, the correct answer to this question is: It takes as long as it takes. The answer is dependent on the person, the project, the tragedies and thrills that run into us over the years. Could I tell such a man: “Do not hurry”? Do I have a right to tell anyone?
The question is more significant now that self-publishing has become a plausible choice for writers and even a rare financial triumph, what with bestsellers such as Still Alice coming to fame due to its author’s tenacity (and a built-in niche—Alzheimer’s—making that fight for publicity a little easier). Of course, even Lisa Genova admits her embarrassment when a big publisher finally bought the book and took out its mighty red pen only to discover a mass of grammatical mistakes in a novel already read by thousands. I’ve now had dozens of students and consultees say, “I just might give up and self-publish this thing. What do you think?” And I know the student is making this choice out of the sheer exhaustion and despair inherent in the process, out of the horror that, good God, the revisions could take years. So they attempt to beat the game by taking a short cut, going for the easy fix. Certainly, a self-published book doesn’t suffer the same scrutiny of agents and editors, but doesn’t such scrutiny make a book better? “Don’t,” I tell them. “Keep working. You want to make your book as good as it can be, and it takes years to learn what good even is.” These writers, I fear, would rather label themselves Writer than to actually write. I understand their longing. But I’ve always believed in Samuel Beckett’s approach. When asked what he did for a living, he never answered, “I’m a writer.” He simply said, “I write.”
It’s not as if the process of completing my first book came easily. When asked that dreaded question “How long did it take?,” I usually answer six years, arguing that, in reality, I wrote two books in that stretch of time and praying that my memory of the process is correct. If I count out the months, might it instead have taken seven, eight? But I don’t let myself begin counting, not now, for the simple reason that I don’t want to know how many lifetimes I’ve lost. I prefer to pay attention to the fact that it is done.
I began my own book when I was 23, far too young to begin a novel (in my case at least). At the end of three grad school years, I had a full manuscript, but an awkward one, with no true narrative thread, a scramble of characters, voices, and desires, and a handful of nice sentences, if anything. After a deserved slew of agent rejections, I put the book away and started another, only to return to The Quickening in my thirties. I kept fifty pages of the original, killed off five characters and two narrative perspectives, created another narrator, four characters, a different time line and an altogether different plot. Yes, you could argue that this book was an entirely new novel, that I couldn’t count the three lost years in my twenties when asked that terrible question. I’ll let others decide. Nonetheless, my anxiety about my age, my career, my life, none of it helped the book reach its end one day sooner than the book itself required. It takes as long as it takes. With my next book, I’m sure I will experience the same anxiety of the years passing, of that starvation to produce, to publish. But it takes as long as it takes. No sooner and no later than that.