I’ve written 138,000 words this year and none of it is publishable. Not publishable yet, is the point of this post (I think). About 100,000 of that is toward a new book, and the rest are from the essays and the short story I spent this summer writing amid travel. I’ve historically been the kind of writer who revises as he goes, who deletes what doesn’t look great on the page, and I don’t think it’s led my work to very surprising places. Now, I’m trying a new tactic. I’m trying to become a better reviser, and it’s scary because what if all those 138,000 words stay unpublishable?
It’s been a tough year, as tough as a year can be for a tenured professor. I remember a colleague talking with me earlier in the year about the Career Associate?the writer who publishes enough to get tenure and then stops, never to publish another book that would bring them to full. We agreed in our tones if not our words that such a fate is to be avoided. She had nothing to worry about, with three books and a newly donned full-professor title. I’d worked with such professors in grad school, and I remember wondering what happened. I remember assuming they could no longer write something publishable, which was to say relevant or modish. That was how hardily I breathed the competitive air of academia back then.
Here’s what I’ve been telling people: my first two books were written in a timeframe handed to me by academia; the first book to get a job, the second book to get tenure. Now that there’s no clock ticking, I can take the time to write the stuff the stuff I want to write needs. The stuff can dictate the time. Process can form the product. But there’s still a part of me with an eye on my CV, my online shares. When was the last time a thing of mine was printed? What if years go by and no one ever thinks of me?
This is egotism, but then again “pure ego” was one of the motivators behind Orwell’s writing. One of the hardest parts of writing is bearing through the time it takes. Unlike a table, or a computer, or a record, it always takes longer to make a book than it does to enjoy it. It always lives longer in your lonely brain than it seems to live in the world. I’m getting at what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “grief of writing,” the enduring of which he takes as an act of faith:
For the next nine years, I learned about grief as I worked on that damned short story collection. I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer. Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place.
I’ve never been good at faith. You should for sure read that Nguyen essay if you’re a writer in the academy. I found it so kind and helpful. It gave me a way to forgive myself.