The best books seem to have an effortlessness to their writing, as though each word has been set down just where it needs to be. Nowhere on the page is the agonizing, writing, rewriting, not writing of getting it done visible. "Writing a long novel is like survival training," Haruki Murakami has said. "Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity."
And rarely does it come out right the first time around. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied with it. John Cheever describes the act of finishing a book as "invariably something of a psychological shock."
All too often, there comes a point in a creative project when your progress seems to hit a wall—when the idea of ever finishing feels nearly impossible.
I spoke with five writers who recently finished their first book about how they dealt with such moments in their own work and what they did to overcome these creative blocks.
Julia Fierro graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop and wrote her first novel in seven months. After a year of rejections from one editor after the next, her confidence had been shattered and for the next seven years, she barely wrote. "I felt like I was leading a fraudulent life," says Fierro.
Feeling like she didn't fit into the New York literary scene, in 2003, Fierro posted an ad on Craigslist for a writing workshop. Eleven years later, what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into The Sackett Street Writer's Workshop, which has had more than 2,000 writers in its classes and workshops over the years. Creating that community of writers is what got Fierro over her block. Toward the end of 2011, she wrote her book Cutting Teeth in less than a year. "I had lost my confidence for so long," she says. "I started Sacket Street as a place where I could hide. …It was really creating a community that reminded me why we write."
When Ted Thompson sold his novel, The Land of Steady Habits to Little Brown and Company in 2010, he knew it wasn't quite ready. He wrote and rewrote the same scene countless times, took his dog on long walks, then sat in front of his computer screen staring. This went on for a year.
Then one afternoon, he deleted everything but the first 60 pages of the book, named this new document "Crazy Fucking Experiment" and let himself write. Before he knew it, he had 10 new pages, then 20, then 30. All of a sudden, the writing flowed. "You do the work when you're not in front of it," he says. "With a long project like that, it can start to feel like a reflection of your own identity. I think it's important to let it be a book."
With a 12-hour workday at an online media company and a young son at home, Mira Jacob found time to work on her novel from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sometimes she'd wake up with her face on the keyboard. When Jacob got laid off, she decided to take three months to complete her book, which she'd been working on for nearly a decade. But when she finished writing, she felt stuck. "I'd gotten to the end and the magical thing that was supposed to, didn't happen," she says. "It was like looking at a Rubik's cube, thinking, 'I have to get it all to align. It's all there.'"
Jacob was stumped. Her husband, documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein, told her to storyboard the plot, writing it out on index cards. As soon as she did that, she saw where the problems were. "If you enter the process differently, you can decode it and see it in a different way," says Jacob.
"Don't go down the rabbit hole."
-Amy Brill, author of The Movement of Stars (Riverhead)
It took Amy Brill 15 years to write her first novel. When she came upon her inspiration for the book—the Nantucket home of a girl astronomer from the 1800s—she decided to study everything she could about the topic. "I felt I needed to know everything about everything before I wrote even a page," she says. She gathered documents and transcribed journals and letters. After nine years of this, Brill had amassed a backpack of research and had only written 100 pages.
In 2006, Brill lugged her backpack of research to a writing residency in Spain. On her flight home, she checked the bag at the airport and never saw it again. The loss was devastating and for nearly two years, she couldn't work on the book. Then, pregnant with her first child, Brill told herself she would finish the book before her baby was born. "Even if it was drivel, I just had to push forward," she says. Brill wrote four pages a day every day, resisting the urge to get lost in research as she had before. Ten days before her daughter was born, she finished her first draft. "I learned to just go forward," she says. "Don't go down the rabbit hole."
"Sometimes you don’t know what you're writing until you've finished it."
-Vu Tran, author of This Or Any Desert (WW Norton & Company)
In 2009, Vu Tran won the Whiting Writers Award, an honor given to emerging writers that comes with a $50,000 prize. That same year, he signed a book deal with WW Norton for his first novel. By that point, Tran had only written the first 60 pages and planned to take 18 months to complete the book. But things did not go as planned.
Tran wanted every sentence to be just right before he went on to the next one. He spent a month and a half just working on the first three sentences of the book. Every time he tried to step back and think about the larger story, he became paralyzed with uncertainty. "I was trying too hard to figure out the rest of the novel so I could write towards it," he says. "I couldn't do that. The only way I could do it was to go sentence by sentence and just trust in the process." Tran completed the book in January of 2014. "That was the only way I was able to do it—inch by inch, word by word, sentence by sentence. … Sometimes you don’t know what you're writing until you've finished it."
[Image: Flickr user Walker Carpenter]