Someone recently asked me what it takes to write a book. Winter’s Graces took over 15 years to complete and became available in bookstores just two days ago, so the question was both timely and intriguing. As a first-time author of a non-fiction book, I’m hardly an expert on birthing books. But it’s been enjoyable living with the question for a time and realizing that there are a few things I’d like to share about writing this particular book that might be of interest to those who are in the midst of writing one, or those who might be haunted / inspired by an idea but are daunted by the prospect of turning it into a book.
As one who has been haunted and daunted herself, let me first say that you are not alone. It is a VERY big thing to complete a book – and for me, an even bigger thing to share it once it’s done – and it’s entirely human to be afraid when entering unfamiliar territory. The trick is to keep moving forward in spite of being scared. Looking back, what helped me continue these 15 years were a few good friends and a handful of qualities: love/passion, courage, flexible tenacity, and trust in the process. The good news is that you needn’t possess these characteristics in abundance at the outset because writing helps develop them – and so does growing older.
For me, the most important thing was passion, and loving the crone was not easy at first. Aging is way down on most people’s list of juicy topics, and the word crone has to be one of the least popular in the English language. But the crone was haunting me, and I’m grateful that I followed her initially unwelcome nudges because they have enhanced my life enormously and eventually turned themselves into a book. A longer version of this unexpected love story appears in the Introduction to Winter’s Graces and a shorter one can be found at wintersgraces.com/how-i-learned-to-love-the-crone.
One of you might be fascinated by an irresistible character that strolled into your awareness one morning, or by an experience that is pushing to be turned into a story. Sometimes a lifetime of stories wants to be written down in memoir. Or it might be a single phrase that does the beckoning, or a dream, or a statement that is too important not to make. A love tap like one of these is worth dancing with, at least for a time. And if it’s really love (and a worthy task), the passion will keep you going through the dry times, and the lazy ones, and the scary ones. (Etymological aside: The word love comes from roots that mean “desire” and “it is pleasing,” and the word passion derives from the Latin pati, “to suffer.” For me, writing – like other forms of love – entails all three: desire, pleasure, and sometimes suffering.
Courage is choosing to move toward fear, rather than running away or turning to stone in its presence. The word derives from the French coeur, meaning “heart,” which suggests a relationship between love and the courageous willingness to do what we must. Writing, like any form of creating, means entering the unknown; fear is a natural protective response. Dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille once reflected, “Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how . . . The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
Humorist Cynthia Heimel said something similar: “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So, what the hell, leap!” I began Winter’s Graces with very little grace and a huge amount of fear and resistance. All I can say is that despite fear, doubt, and other internal impediments, something in me kept choosing to continue, even when I had no idea how to proceed.
Picasso’s words lent me strength in one particular period of uncertainty: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.” We learn to write by writing – what a freeing idea! Even so, there were many times when I became convinced I didn’t have the writing skill nor the cognitive speed and agility to write a book, and then added the extra burden of beating myself up for being scared. More than once my good friend Ellen would say just the right thing – like “Of course you’re scared” – and then remind me of another time when she or I had been terrified, finally found a way through the fear, and recovered our gumption and aliveness.
The other day I ran across these words by mythologist Joseph Campbell: “The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.” If the Muse has been beckoning you with a love tap and you’re daunted by fear, why not “write on” and see where it takes you?
To be continued next week in More Thoughts on Writing: Flexible Tenacity and Trusting the Process.