Toes on the Board

The wonderful science fiction and fantasy writer R.A. Lafferty once said, “The best time to write a story is yesterday. The second best is today.”

As person who is now hesitating–the metaphorical equivalent of standing at the edge of a diving board, looking down past my toes at the rippling swimming pool water below–I find wisdom in Lafferty’s remark.

A few days ago I saw a respectful documentary about fantasy fiction, from Tolkein and C.S. Lewis through Game of Thrones. I took issue at a few things–why wasn’t the epic fantasy Beowulf mentioned as an influence on the author of Lord of the Rings and why was the myth-blending science fiction “New Wave” not discussed–but I just boiled when I heard interviews with current writers, some famous, some not, who were answering the questions I used to be asked when one of my books was published. Our answers were more or less the same.

From there it was a typical woe-is-me session, though, at my age, I was more like Lear complaining of how less he was a sinner than sinned against. What, I asked myself, had I done wrong so that my fantasy novel was not published?

Oh, there’s a long list of what I could have, should have and would have done, but the fact remains that the my heart was in the right place in writing it, the book has some very good scenes and a few that could be improved, and an important character could use a bit more development. I can say something similar about every book I’ve written, whether or not it was published.

I know from writing books, hanging around with people who write books, and interviewing people who are famous for writing books, that such an attitude is common among the profession. We can all talk, in retrospect, about what it all means, how we’re trying to change the world, that we never thought that anybody would ever read it or that we were hoping the book would correct a misleading cultural attitude or trend that has gone on too long, but, when you’ve finished a book, about the best thing you can feel is relief. This doesn’t last long before you think everything you’ve done is terrible, or that even if you’ve published a zillion times, you’re still a fraud counting the days before someone exposes you.

The only cure for this is to start another book.

My difficulty of late is that other emotion that stops many people from writing a single word: that utter certainty that nobody is going to read this, nobody is going to care about it, nobody is going to publish it or spend money on it or come up with a decent cover illustration.

It’s similar to how you feel when you’re on the edge of that diving board, asking yourself why you should hurl yourself off, when you could hurt yourself, kill yourself, make a fool out of yourself with everybody around the pool watching, or get water up your nose.

When I mentioned my hesitation to my wife (who really likes to read my stuff, so thinking that nobody will read my stuff is not just wrong but not fair to her), she reminded me what an agent had said after reading an earlier draft. Yes, things can be changed and why not change a few?

I fired up the word processor and wrote about a page of a new beginning. My wife read it and said that this, finally, was the opening of a book I just may have been born to write.

In terms of encouragement, it doesn’t get any better.

But I am still hesitating. My new feeling is much closer to the truth: do I want to feel so good, and so bad, as I write the book?

While every writer enjoys the rare work that “writes itself,” the more typical situation is an emotional hay ride, with bumps, twists, moments when the tractor stalls, too many other moments when you ask yourself why you ever thought you would want to sit on all this dried straw when you could be doing anything else, or nothing at all?

I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve been blocked, others when I just had some time without a deadline. Doing nothing can be a good thing.

But after a while, you ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, you could be doing something…else. I’ve noticed that part of the reason I enjoy solitaire games is a safe feeling of accomplish when I win. But what precisely is accomplished?

So I’m still hesitating. But not for long. I sincerely want to put this book into some shape so that even if all those other things that I fear happen, one person in this world will have a story that I’ve always wanted to tell.



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