For me, the greatest thing about writing is the process itself. I love getting up in the morning with the next sentence in my head. Or even a fuzzy idea that has taken firmer shape during the night while I was asleep. Best of all is the sense of adventure--that I don’t know at the start exactly where the book will take me, what discoveries I will make on route, how it will be somehow different from what I initially conceptualized.
I used to think that my lack of a strictly logical mind was a disadvantage. How come other non-fiction writers have a real hypothesis that they are determined to prove in a step-by-step manner? How come other people make extensive outlines that are, in themselves, mini-books? I can never do this. At best, I can write three to five or even eight pages of random ideas that constitute a book proposal, but do not really present a convincing argument, even for me. But having written seven books and edited an equal number, I have confidence that I will come up with something publishable.
This was, of course, not true when I started out as a writer. For my first two books, (Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness and Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory), I despaired at ever finding a publisher. The first of these, after numerous rejections, found a modest home at Penn State Press. The second—with more than one rejection by both academic and trade presses—was ultimately taken on by Basic Books, and I suspect that happened because my husband, Irvin Yalom, was one of Basic’s star authors.
After that, I listened to my friend, the literary agent Sandra Dijkstra, who said to me: “You write so well. Why don’t you write something I can sell!” And I came up with A History of the Breast. This is the only book where I knew from the start what most of its contents would be. Still, I added two chapters along the way that weren’t in the initial outline, and ended up with a book that has by now been translated into twenty languages.
For my latest book, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, personal stories in the “I” voice kept intruding into the text. I didn’t know if I should welcome these intrusions or ban them. But my young editor at HarperCollins kept encouraging me to keep them, and I followed his advice. Still, as a trained academic, I had my misgivings. Was this a form of self-promotion that had no place in a serious discussion of French love and literature? What I didn’t know is what author Diane Johnson told me in a blurb written for the book, calling it “a distinguished contribution to our experience of a great literature, as well as an enduring memoir.” “An enduring memoir!” My God! I simply didn’t know I had written a memoir of any sort until she pointed that out to me.
Each book that I or any other person writes—publishable or not—can be a great adventure if we allow ourselves the freedom of discovery along the way. Of course, some of us are more privileged with time and money than others and can more easily afford the luxury of writing as adventure. Still, I hope many of my younger friends will sometimes be able to enjoy writing simply for the process and worry less about a “marketable” product. You simply do not know at the start where the writing will take you, whether you will have to back track and make detours, and whether you will have the good fortune to stumble upon a gold nugget that will shine through your writing.
Writing, like life itself, is unpredictable. And that’s part of its appeal.
The pub date for How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance is October 23rd. For more about the book, visit www.myalom.com.