My novel, Isn’t It Pretty To Think So?, was published in June this year. I’ve been candid about my writing process from the day I decided to post my first chapter online until the day, years later, when the completed manuscript was forced out of my hands. But I haven’t shared too many of my thoughts since publication. Instead, I’ve been reflecting on the whole experience and, I guess, numbly trying to absorb, like a worn-out sponge, some bit of meaning from it all—which is interesting after I spent a fair-sized chunk of my twenties writing the book in a hunt for meaning.
Anyway, looking back, it was really a compilation of minor interactions with my editors and publisher that threaded together a memorable experience for me: the late-night coffee-fueled discussions about commas and tenses and moods and hyphens and the usage of “email” versus “e-mail” (AP says the former, Chicago says the latter); or the ongoing debate, sometimes a bit heated, over using very contemporary references like Facebook or Twitter or iPhone in the story. I remember one conversation starting like this:
“The novel will feel dated if we include those contemporary references. And it ruins the experience for the reader.”
“Yeah, it makes me cringe.”
“But we need to represent current times.”
“Yeah, are you kidding me? Franzen references something contemporary on every fucking page!”
“Haven’t you read any PKD? You remember his TV show references? They aren’t even around anymore, but it still works.”
Everyone had different opinions. My concern was whether I could stay honest to contemporary culture but in an artful way, so that a reader in twenty years could relate. Who knows if we pulled it off? Nevertheless, we compromised and moved forward. (Regarding social media, we decided to directly reference Facebook and imply the rest of the social networks.)
But even more special to me were the battles I had to face alone. It was clear to me, early on in the process, that I would never be a fast writer, especially as I tried to create content without any confidence in the subject matter. For example, toward the end of my story, I wanted to write about flowers, specifically about an interaction between a florist and my protagonist, during which they discuss types of flowers. Well, knowing nothing about flowers, I spent the next couple of days calling florists and, from a long list of questions, interviewing them until I started feeling more confident. I took pages of notes, writing down all my thoughts, even writing little stories unrelated to my novel. I called my mom, some of my flower-loving friends, did more interviews … And, in the end, all of that research translated to just a few sentences in my book.
I also spent a week writing and rewriting the short dialogue of a fictional Mexican taco-truck owner because I wanted to be meticulously true to his Spanglish. I grew up hearing Spanglish (a trademark of a childhood in Southern California), but, still, I spent hours chatting with real taco-truck owners and my Spanish-speaking friends … all for, again, just a couple of sentences. In retrospect, I feel most proud of those sentences; the ones I spent so much time laboring over.
I think my lowest moment was when, after I’d already asked for two deadline extensions, it was obvious—as suggested by my publisher, my editors, and a handful of advanced-copy readers—that a 100-page section in the middle of the book needed to be entirely rewritten. But even without the group’s consensus, I knew the rewrite was necessary. I just didn’t want to believe it.
I hid away in my room for several months. The excitement of “Friday is almost here” dissipated as all my days blended into one long stretch of writing, coffee binging, smoking, pacing, procrastinating, trying to sleep, trying to improve, reading, panicking … I stopped drinking alcohol to focus on my work. But I also stopped communicating with my family and friends.
Sadly, during that period, my world shrunk to the size of my writing desk, and I selfishly believed that what I was doing was the most important thing in the world. I let myself be duped into thinking that I didn’t need anyone in my life, and then, even worse, I started viewing people (from my social media peephole) with a bit of disdain—as if my hermitic ways were somehow truer and more meaningful than their weekend adventures of drunkenness or romance or reality TV binges.
That mentality was my biggest flaw. I knew that it was purely wrong to feel that way, and I’m sure now that I was using one of my fictional mentor-like characters (Henry Shapiro) to indirectly give advice to myself as I was rewriting the advice he was giving to my protagonist, Jake Reed.
Fortunately, I finally got the manuscript to a place where I was content with it. After it was published and released, I thought I would feel accomplished or validated. I didn’t. I really just felt … empty … for months—which now is an indication that it was the writing process, even if it was incredibly arduous, that made me happy, not the goal of finishing a book and releasing it.
Rather, I think I found validation when I wrote the best sentence I was capable of writing, and then, the next morning, found a way to improve it a bit. That inspired me. It reminded me that I was committed to improving … and that I had so much more to learn, so much more that I wanted to learn. So when I started believing that I could spend my life getting better with words … that’s when I felt accomplished and validated.
I also learned several things about myself, one of them being that I’m just one tiny person in an immeasurably grand pool of creative people trying to contribute something meaningful to the conversation. I’m convinced there are plenty of books (good or bad) that will never be written, simply because the rigors that constantly shackle the journey.
But, simply put, I love writing. And that’s why I will always write. Knowing what I know now, I’m excited to go through hell again to write something new.
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