How to Write a Book Without Getting in Your Own Way
Evan Puschak on the Constant Self-Battle of Drafting
The first day was bad. The second was worse. On the fifth, I began cursing myself out loud. On the sixth, I began doing it in public. Know how you can be so consumed with a line of thinking you forget you’re walking down Harrison Street to pick up Tito’s Burritos? On the sixth day, in the early evening, I was muttering “stupid fucking stupid” to myself at a crosswalk in Southwest Portland, waving my forefinger in figure eights. Twenty minutes later I said “because you’re dumb” in an elevator with two people who thankfully did not live on my floor.
On the seventh day, the last day of the first week, I gave up. It was the fourteenth or fifteenth time I’d done so. Giving up started to feel insincere, which was a welcome development. Not as welcome as writing a single sentence that didn’t make me wince and/or doubt the value of my entire life, but welcome nonetheless. So I embarked on my second week with hope. It was a bad week.
It wasn’t until week five of writing my novel that I had a good day. By then I had discovered a few things: that I was a poor writer, and not just a poor writer but a worthless person, and not just a worthless person but a despicable one. I discovered these things several times every day, always in that order. My work rang false, I learned, because I had nothing to say, and I had nothing to say because I had little interest in actually writing, only in being a writer. I wanted to be a writer because I was vain, attention-starved, and at the core of me was a black hole where a soul ought to be. Anyway, on my first good day I wrote two not entirely terrible paragraphs. One of them contained this sentence:
He began his sojourn to that blistery junction of tri-district gambling not six months before, dreaming of a streak, but all he got was a dark new appreciation for settling debts.
I don’t know what could make a junction blistery, but in December 2010 I thought it sounded perfect for my science fiction novel about an ecumenopolis, or a planet-wide city. Remembering how harshly I judged myself back then, it’s a wonder so many of these lousy sentences made it into the final draft. For every sentence that survived, at least twenty were discarded in a spasm of self-loathing. God knows what horrors lurk in earlier drafts if “blistery junction” made the cut.
So much of that book seems dreadful to me now—I was twenty-two, so maybe that’s to be expected—but it didn’t seem that way on my first good day. After weeks of punching myself in the heart, a morning in which I looked back over my work and felt satisfied was deeply relieving. The cruel autobiography playing on loop in my head became a little less persuasive. I slept soundly and woke with optimism, ready to capitalize on this change in momentum only to fall by lunch into a vortex of even crueler cruelties than before.
That was one of those days when you’re so filled with disgust that getting out of the house doesn’t seem drastic enough so you spend most of the afternoon looking at flights you’ll never take to cities in Europe and Asia. In those early months, I did a lot of research on Zen monasteries in Japan, mentally bracketing the next five years for a severe regimen of silence and self-abnegation. The only remedy for my monstrous personality was, obviously, “successful transcendence of ego consciousness and a quasi-mystical embodiment of pure, incorporeal Buddha-nature.”
In the end I never went to Japan, but I did have donuts.
The bad days after my first good day were just as bad as the ones before it, often much worse, but they were different. The bad days before my first good day were shattering. The ones that came after felt less like a wildfire inside my identity and more like a losing spin on a slot machine that basically never pays out. Both can be demoralizing, but the former is threatening in a way the latter isn’t. A good day had occurred, and it was not ludicrous to imagine that a good day might occur again. But how many bad days and good donuts would I have to endure until it did?
Just five, it turned out—days.
Midway through my sixth week I had another good day, on which I wrote this doozy:
She dreams of the murder that never happened there, of the finely felt passion, darker than coals, that never called out to the silver moon in yearning—what a rose-thorn envy she feels for murderers! (What does this even mean?)
I may have been producing Frankenstein sentences like that, but twenty-two-year-old me approved. Good days gave me confidence to persevere, to push through the sludge of bad ones. Soon I had one good day a week. I sat at my desk each morning with a cup of coffee, praying it would be the one. More often than not it wasn’t, much more often. But good days kept coming, and eventually, my relationship to bad days permanently changed.
Writing a book helped me to recognize the perpetual cycling of mood, to see it as something always in motion. Maybe that’s obvious, but writing gave me the chance to observe it in real time. For the most part, I think, we try not to pay attention to the mood we’re in. If it’s a good mood, we’re rarely aware of it. Happiness isn’t introspective. It points outward, to the work or the people or the entertainment at hand. The moment I realize I’m happy is usually when the feeling begins to retreat—like air-conditioning programmed to turn on when the house gets too hot. Bad moods, on the other hand, are mercilessly introspective. They plunge inward with great speed to the most fundamental self-criticisms. As a result, I often seek out things to distract myself, like three to eleven episodes of Parks and Recreation.When I feel good, I exploit the feeling for all it’s worth. When I feel like shit, I batten down the hatches and hold on to my confidence that it will pass.
“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.” That’s not from my sci-fi novel (as if there were any doubt). It’s Emerson again. I read his essay “Experience” in college and thought the quote was eloquent, but it wasn’t until writing Big City that my own “train of moods” became visible to me. Knowing something is different from internalizing it. I knew the world was mediated by the “many-colored lenses” of my moods and temperament, but writing that book forced me to watch my own mind, for better or worse.
Try it: Write that novel, that memoir you’ve been dreaming about. Assign yourself a daily word count. Let’s say five hundred words a day. Grab a coffee, some snacks, and commit to staying put until that goal is reached. Resist distraction. Leave your phone in another room.
Quiet, isn’t it? Too quiet. Better check Twitt—stop it.
Sit in the silence. Stare at the blank page, the white page. Bright white. Can’t be good for your eyes to look at that color for long. I think there’s a writing app that optimizes the screen for your eyes and—stop it!
Try to focus. I know it’s hard to focus these days with so much content competing for your attention. Social media companies design their interfaces to be addicting because our attention’s their product. It’s incredible how much data these companies collect on each of us. Our privacy slips away each time we sign on to Facebook or TikTok, but of course we don’t do anything about it because—for god’s sake, get a grip on yourself!
Once you push the daydreams from your thoughts, you can usually manage six or seven sentences before the real dark stuff starts to gnaw. There’s that famous quote by Ira Glass about beginners: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” I could not agree more. When you start as a writer, your work sucks. And, as Glass says, “it is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap” between your writing and your taste.
But he leaves out one very important thing: overcoming your deficiencies as a writer is going to put you in direct conflict with a part of your mind determined to see you fail. In other words, closing the gap between your skill and your taste isn’t just a matter of writing a million words, but writing them while battling a relentless antagonist, one who knows your deepest secrets and insecurities. This adversary will use the crap that you’re producing as a sledgehammer to split the foundations of your self-esteem. It was waiting for some hard evidence. Now you’ve given the enemy all the documentation it needs to prove you’re a dumbass. And it will prove it to you, again and again, every time you sit down to write. When you commit to staying at that desk, you’re committing to this psychological fight.
Self-hatred derailed me frequently. Many days I didn’t reach my five hundred words, choosing instead pizza and YouTube. You can only take so much. But as with anything you do over and over, these internal clashes eventually became routine. I became familiar with the moves my antagonist would make, and though that didn’t always stop the blows from landing, it did fortify me. After a while the predictability of the experience provided a certain detachment, and I was able to witness the negativity from a safe emotional distance—a perspective on a perspective.
Good days offered yet another perspective. And the frequency of them increased. Near the end of my second month, I started having two good days a week. It felt like an embarrassment of riches. Soon enough, I internalized the reliability of good days. More important, I internalized the reliability of a change in mood, from good to bad and back to good again.
The longer I worked, the more good days I had, but the scale never tipped; at best I had an equal number of good days to bad. Will it ever improve beyond that? Maybe, but I doubt it. To work on something you believe in, I think, is to expose yourself to the spectrum of your mind, to the shadows and the light.
As Seinfeld says, “It comes as a set.”
After six months I finished the first draft of Big City. I didn’t think it was the next Gatsby or even the next Fifty Shades of Grey, but completing a long-form story was incredibly rewarding. A year later I wrote a second book that was twice as long and, I thought, twice as good. (It wasn’t.) My plan was to self-publish both novels by building an audience on YouTube, after seeing the success John Green achieved thanks in part to his online fan base.
I failed to realize two things, however:
First, that John was a skilled novelist who had been honing his craft for many years and I was only at the very very beginning of that journey; and second, that I would fall in love with the creative medium of online video. After ten or fifteen videos, YouTube stopped being a means to an end and became the craft I wanted to master. A decade of making The Nerdwriter has taught me how much work you really have to do, how many words you really have to write, to begin to close that gap between your taste and ability. I still have a long way to go, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made.With all the poise I can muster, I wait for the clouds to pass—there are more bad hours than bad days—and pick up the thread again.
My early books may be crap, but writing them had an immense impact. Learning the dynamics of my mood enabled every success I’ve had in work and life. When I feel good, I exploit the feeling for all it’s worth. When I feel like shit, I batten down the hatches and hold on to my confidence that it will pass. That’s so important because it keeps me from changing course during a bad spell, from being tossed in the winds of my attitude. If every bad day resulted in a deconstruction of values and priorities, I’d never make headway on a worthwhile project.
A big undertaking, whether it’s writing a novel, starting a business, or nurturing a relationship, requires emotional stability. But our emotions aren’t stable, so the best we can do is cultivate a bird’s-eye view on ourselves to remind us of the colored lens we’re seeing through. Eventually the reflex to that view becomes automatic, and that’s especially helpful when I’m at my lowest, about to trash my progress, or make a decision I’ll regret, or succumb to the gloom in my head. With all the poise I can muster, I wait for the clouds to pass—there are more bad hours than bad days—and pick up the thread again.
This semblance of stability is good enough. It works.
There’s nothing more important in creative work than being able to pick up where you left off. Somewhere in my head there’s a graveyard of promising ideas with tombstones that all read: “Left off on Month-Day-Year, before obsessing about something unproductive for three days and forgetting that it ever existed. RIP.”
I’ve come a long way from that depressing evening on Harrison Street, but not that long, apparently: for some reason, I thought I’d be able to write this short essay with ease. But the 2,475 words you just read (and the 283 to come) took the better part of six weeks to complete. At least five times I exited my office crestfallen and announced to my wife that I was a poor writer, and not just a poor writer but a worthless person, and not just a worthless person but a despicable one. I was frustrated with my inability to make progress while writing an essay about why it’s so hard to make progress. I couldn’t see the lessons I was literally writing down in front of my face. That’s how narrow the tunnel vision of mood can be.
But eventually the fever broke as it always breaks, as some part of me knows it will. Good days came and went. I got to work. I finished it.
Excerpted from Escape into Meaning: Essays on Superman, Public Benches, and Other Obsessions by Evan Puschak, available via Atria Books.