This winter will mark four years of working on my first book, and I just finished what I believe is rewrite No. 10 Friday. Over the past 13 weeks, I stole a hundred little snippets of time: 30 minutes on my lunch breaks, bleary-eyed sessions after putting the kids to bed, and 10- to 15-page marathon sessions on Fridays when I’m off work.
I aim for 10 hours of writing a week (tracking it with a timer and a spreadsheet); most weeks, I get in seven. Over four years, that means I’ve logged roughly 1,500 hours on this one book. That’s the equivalent of 8+ months at a full-time job.
Add my fiction writing to my four years as a journalist, a decade of blogging, five years of corporate writing, nearly two years of newsletter writing, and I’m well past that mythical 10,000-hour mark psychologists claim it takes to become an expert in a field.
And yet I’m still learning every day.
When things are going well, I sit down to write, and I get this sense the world’s sloughing away. It’s like sliding toe-first into a vat of thick, goopy oil. Then, my timer rings, and I have to come back up. The ordinary world’s waiting for me. I must reorient myself.
Writing a novel is the most difficult (and mysterious) thing I’ve ever attempted. Where do stories come from? Why do we bother telling them?
For Robert Olen Butler they come “from where we dream.” To Haruki Murakami, they’re born in the “basement.”
“It’s a dark, cool, quiet place,” he says. “A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world.”
My book is getting better, but only in the sense that it’s becoming something uniquely mine. I’ve stopped trying to write what I think others want to read. I’ve stopped worrying about finding a publisher, about getting a book deal. I want all that, of course, but not as much as I want to exhume this story that feels like it’s already buried inside me.
“To put these things out as saleable items, you call them finished products — at times it’s downright embarrassing just to think of it,” Murakami says. “Honestly, it can make me blush.”
The paradox in art is that most of us come to it looking outward. We see works that move or inspire us, and we want to replicate them. To make art that matters, we must shut the world out, and turn that giant, unblinking eye on ourselves.