How Long Is Writing Supposed to Take?
Some books take years to write, others months. Can we learn to accept the inefficiency and unpredictability of writing?
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I n 2010, I was three years into writing my linked story collection when I took my first trip to Vermont to attend a writers’ conference. My workshop was a group of seven that included our instructor, Ellen Lesser. With a couch and cushioned chairs set in an oval everyone talked around me and about my story. I remained “in the box” (that is, not allowed to speak) during my classmates’ deliberations and discussions. My only additions were steady nods or pursed lips. Once I was allowed to speak, I thanked them, but bemoaned the fact that this particular piece in my collection was taking a long time. Ellen crossed her legs and met my eyes. She tucked a salt and pepper lock behind her ear and said in a kind and confident tone, “You’re acting as if writing should be an efficient process, Jennifer. It’s not.”
Six years later, I returned from yet another conference where I workshopped another story in this same collection. The instructor in this case, Tayari Jones, recognized the character, having seen a previous iteration of a story a few years earlier. Like Ellen, she gave me the tough love stare and asked, “What’s taking so long?” I had no answer.
Where Ellen’s comment attempted to help me reconcile the writing process. Tayari’s question pushed me to try and understand my process. I was unable to pinpoint my reasons — personal, professional, creative — for not finishing, but I also had a hard time accepting that the process is the process. Ellen’s words rang as a kind of “it is what it is” lament that has no finite answer or fix. For many of us we’re still figuring out “our process.” We tinker with methods of productivity as “process.” “Process” is not always efficient nor pretty. In fact, it is a pain in the ass.
A popular post on Electric Literature is an infographic of how long it took authors to write their most famous novels. The timing ranges from 2.5 days for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to 16 years for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m unsure if these metrics provided relief or added anxiety. Did this mean that I was right on track because Victor Hugo needed 12 years in the 1800s to finish an epic novel, or that I was way behind schedule compared to the 4 years it took Audrey Niffenegger to produce The Time Traveler’s Wife? Pulitzer prize winner Donna Tartt, a notably reclusive writer, seems to publish a novel every 10 years. Another Pulitzer winner, Junot Díaz, has called himself a “slow writer,” too. Slow doesn’t keep the words from coming, yet is it a fair measurement? And who, exactly, determines what “slow” means when it comes to the writing process? Is it us writers, the business, public expectation, or the characters and stories that need time to develop?
Who, exactly, determines what “slow” means when it comes to the writing process?
I also work in book publishing where schedules for manuscript to final product is part of the job. We need to know how long it will take to copyedit, typeset, and print a title. I know that preparing a book for the printer can take several months, to print and bind it a few weeks. The pace of reading, meanwhile, can fluctuate due to a reader’s eagerness to turn the page or scroll further. The act of creating is in itself an immeasurable thing and yet there are barometers readily available, ones we also put on ourselves when it comes to meeting deadlines, applying for residencies and grants, and so on.
The same year I first visited Vermont, Susanna Daniel wrote about the “quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing” it took for her to complete and sell her debut, award-winning book Stiltsville. “Quiet hell” is a great description for the time it takes to hone in on what you want to do and what the work is, along with the insecurity and fear of pursuing such an endeavor, as well as the growth required to continue this bizarre act of writing. Susanna mentions a sense of “non-accomplishment” as one of the factors tempting her to ditch the pursuit. Writing is hard, she wrote, but what’s harder is not writing and not finishing. Ultimately, we return to the tortuous page because we feel that urge and need as artists.
This sense of non-accomplishment triggers anxieties: the pressures of perfection writers place on ourselves in addition to whatever expectations the outside world may push into our orbit. I recall Tayari saying as much at the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in September: Perfection can be a form of procrastination. Something is keeping us (me) from finishing. Enter the internet, which bestows a bevy of information: notifications of a sale; news of a story about an author taking a year to create what’s taken me a year to contemplate, thereby initiating an internal competition of when one “should” be done. In those moments of seeing or reading about others’ progress, I have a niggling doubt about whether or not I really am a writer. When was the last time I submitted something? When I stare at my drafts and my eyes settle on dates connected to documents I see the growth, yet it feels as though I’m barely inching away from the start of the marathon and the massive banner for the end is miles away.
The pressures of perfection make it appealing to click away from my Word document and open a web browser. It’s kind of masochistic, wondering why I’m not finished with a particular project while at the same time baking a bundt cake, editing someone else’s work, checking email I checked three minutes ago, and going on social media using the hashtag #amwriting to relay my progress even though we all know I’m not writing in that moment. Once I begin to question the words on the page, a scene’s progression, and/or my overall concept, it’s a brief reprieve to go for a bike ride rather than tackle the problem at hand. The pressure of being perfect as an artist in a world full of artists, residing in one of the most artistic cities in the world, living with characters for almost a decade, has me throw up my hands and say “I put in enough time, right?” before I log onto Twitter. (#TheStruggleIsReal.) It leads me to settle in my chaise with a book and be optimistic that I won’t be as hard on myself for the time not spent on the work. The pressure has me hope that the distance I felt growing between myself and the words on the screen isn’t as broad as I perceive it to be.
Song of the Shank author Jeffery Renard Allen told me that writers “actively seek ideas.” We may be so dogged in our pursuit that we want, or even expect, to be able to come up with the kernel of one at will and within a specific amount of time. But there’s also a level of development that needs to happen, this also takes time. Jeff was one of my instructors and my mentor as a grad student at the time he had been working on Shank — a fictional account of the prodigy Blind Tom. Eight years after I graduated, I purchased Song of the Shank at a reading at Housing Works remembering the project he’d been researching and drafting as he critiqued my own writing. “Song of the Shank taught me that we have to be patient and let the ideas find us,” he told me.
And sometimes, what feels like the finish line may be the halfway point. Bellwether Prize winner and New York Times best-selling author Heidi Durrow’s debut The Girl Who Fell From the Sky “went through at least twelve major revisions over the course of the years I worked on it and three of those were after I had a book contract,” she said. Heidi estimates she deleted 150 pages of her prize-winning manuscript and “built it back up.” The idea that the work ends once the deal is sealed is a fallacy, reflecting the constant growth and development writers go through to get their writing to a place we’re comfortable with before releasing the reins.
Michele Young-Stone, author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, told me that time constraints are “comical.” Michele wrote the first draft of her novel in 2004. “By March 2005,” she said, “I thought I was finished. It took four years of revision, letting the manuscript sit for months, to see the bigger picture. I sat down and rewrote the whole book in 2008.” The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors would publish in 2010, six years after Michele began.
Writers will never stop setting unrealistic timestamps to finish a story and send it out. In fact, the pressure we put on ourselves can be paralyzing in its intensity, and the feeling of non-accomplishment is a pervasive weight. I began this process thinking “oh yeah, this collection will take a couple years at most,” but the weight increased with each critique, workshop, meeting with an instructor at a conference or a friend for brunch who read it over and said there was more work to be done. “You’re getting there” is a phrase I hear often. “I see what you’re trying to do” is another. My eyes become shiny every time I hand off the latest draft to my cohort. I’m thinking, “Validate me, please. I think I finally got this right. Please tell me I’m done.”
Nowadays when this happens, the words “It takes time” echoes in my head, in Ellen’s voice. It takes time to know your characters and for them to speak to you. It takes time for the feedback to sink in and for a resolution to burst forth. There are moments I hate the people I’ve created on the page, and there are times where I love them so much I cannot bear to press the backspace button to delete a scene they appear in. There are moments when I grin at my perceived brilliance and am humbled, grateful and slack-jawed when someone says, “This works” or “You did a great job with structure” or “I love this and want to publish it.” These factors, the bits and pieces that come through, the material that’s kept and what is cut further illustrates the “inefficiency” of the process. A process that can’t always be measured, no matter how many times I hear “slow” versus “fast” or find out how long it took such-and-such award-winning writer to get their project out in the world.
I asked Susanna how she was able to persevere in her “quiet hell,” despite outside barriers as well as internal ones. She told me she “realized that writing — in the long form especially — is an act of faith and that I needed to generate that faith for myself in a prolonged way.” Jeff noted that the man he was in 2000 “was not a man capable of writing” his most recent novel. I don’t know if this made me feel better or not, but it did provide more insight than I had before. I once heard Ron Carlson say at a workshop, “stay in the room.” He meant this metaphorically and literally. In order to stay in the room, I will not think about the person who initiated this anthology at age 27 as the same person to finish it several years down the line. To stay in the room and accept my process, whatever it may be, also means not dwelling on something I cannot change. But I may have to turn off the wifi.