There is surely a word—in German, most likely—that means the state of active non-accomplishment. Not just the failure to reach a specific goal, but ongoing, daily failure with no end in sight. Stunted ambition. Disappointed potential. Frustrated and sad and lonely and hopeless and sick to death of one’s self.
Whatever it’s called, this is what leads people to abandon their goals—people do it every day. And I understand that decision, because I lived in this state of active non-accomplishment for many years.
I wrote the earliest bit of what would become my first novel, Stiltsville, in January of 2000, when I was in my first year of a graduate writing program. In May of 2009, I sold Stiltsville to HarperCollins—the hardcover is due out next month.
This means that the time from my novel’s conception to its appearance on store shelves adds up to a staggering 10 years. An entire decade. Between, I graduated and spent a year on fellowship (during which I wrote a lot but only half of it was any good); then there were the teaching years (during which I wrote very little, hardly any of it good); then there were the Internet company years (during which I barely wrote at all).
Stiltsville is in good company, which is reassuring. There are oodles of novels that took a decade or longer to write—including some famous examples, like Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz spoke in interviews about his own decade of active non-accomplishment. He said that five years into the process, he decided to give up on the novel and start a graduate degree (in what, he didn’t say). He said his life improved: no more torture, no more fights with his fiance. Oh, Junot, I thought when I read this, I understand! Still, something pulled him back, and another five years passed, and then he was finally done.
Then he won the Pulitzer, which isn’t going to happen to me. And I think I can speak for pretty much anyone who publishes a novel after 10 years: Whether you win awards doesn’t matter one bit. The hardest—and therefore the most rewarding—part was just finishing.
Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing.
During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. My “novel” (which had started to wear its own air quotes in my head) became something closer to enemy than lover. A person and his creative work exist in a relationship very much like a marriage: When it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s ugly. And when it’s been bad for a long, long time, you start to think about divorce.
My friend Bob, a playwright, told me years ago that he finally understood how writers stop writing. “It happens one day at a time,” he said to me, clearly in the midst of a revelation. I’d come to the same realization a few years earlier. In the years between conceiving my book and finishing it, there wasn’t one month when I didn’t have a writing goal—five pages a week, say, or half of a chapter—but most months, I didn’t even come close.
The thing is—one-day-at-a-time is the most painful way for active non-accomplishment to happen. It’s the psychological equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. A painter I knew told me once that she’d reached a point when she said goodbye to painting, much the same way Junot Díaz considered doing—she said it was the kindest, most generous thing she’d ever done for herself.
I know a lot of writers, both published and not, and so I know that for every book that makes it to stores, several are never published, and several more are never finished. Many of my friends and acquaintances from graduate school published right away, but most still haven’t. No doubt some will publish in the coming years. And some have gone into social work or law or medicine and seem to have left fiction writing behind, happily, like an old hairstyle.
And what about the rest of them? These are the people—many of whom write beautifully—I wonder about. And I wonder about strangers in similar situations, artists of all ilks. I wonder if they wake in the night, their hearts racing, unable to feel anything but the fear and frustration and disappointment of the fact that they haven’t finished anything in a month. I wonder if they’re anything like me. My guess is that many of them are—and naturally I feel tremendous empathy. Having been there, I know there are no magic words of encouragement, no surefire tough-love tactic. I wish there were.
It could have gone either way for Stiltsville, which is a thought that gives me chills. But then a couple of years ago, three things happened that gave me the push I needed.
One, my close friend Jen referred to my work, not unkindly, as “the great American novel.” It’s not that I hadn’t realized there was a certain epic and hopeless quality to the damn thing, but still it stirred something in me to hear it out loud.
Two, a writer friend ran into a former instructor, and he asked about me. He told my friend it was too bad I wasn’t writing because I’d been good. It was probably just something he’d said to make conversation, but it buoyed me in the way unexpected compliments—even sad ones like this—can.
Three, I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. I dropped a few obligations and started getting up early to write for an hour or two before leaving the house. Of course I was sidetracked again—moving, pregnancy—but not for long. After I wrote the last sentence, I printed the whole mess and got out my red pen, and the relief of having a complete draft was overwhelming. I had more writing energy than I’d had in years. At this point, no matter that the sky was falling in publishing-land, I was certain that I would see my book in print.
In the end, I don’t really believe it took me 10 years to finish Stiltsville. There’s no exact start date (that first bit I wrote didn’t make it into the completed novel, after all), so the math is pretty fuzzy. Here’s how it works in my head: It took one year to write the first half, another year and a half to finish the rest, a few weeks to sell it, and 18 months for it to lumber through the publishing process.
But between the first half and the last, I cannot deny that there were four or five years when I failed to complete a single new chapter. One day at a time.
Everyone knows that the line between succeeding and failing can be pretty thin. But the fact that it took me so long haunts me less and less these days, and I find myself looking forward instead of back. After all, as every writer is aware, the ending of a story does most of the heavy lifting. It can make or break the whole thing.