The summer of 2013, I found myself on the phone with Stephen King, listening as he described how he wrote the opening sentence of It: “That’s one that I worked over and over and over.”
Drawing on four decades of work, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things to Doctor Sleep, the author recounted the arduous way his books usually begin—how he’ll spend weeks, months, sometimes years of nights lying in bed with a laptop, thinking, experimenting, fiddling with the words, until the language clicks. The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.
As I listened, I thought of my novel, the one I was struggling to write. I was attempting to get beyond the first 50 pages—aiming to write 1,000 words every morning before heading off to work, and often just staring at the screen and feeling seasick instead. My cast of characters had shifted over time, and I’d tried telling the story from different points of view. But what King was saying rang incredibly true: Whenever I felt lost, my opening sentence, which I’d worked and reworked, always reminded me of what the book was meant to be.
I was talking to King because, in the fall of 2012, sensing that my post-MFA plan (finish my novel in a year, get it published, settle into the creative life) might need a little tweaking, I’d pitched a series called “By Heart” to The Atlantic. The formula was simple: Each week, I’d interview a well-known writer about a favorite passage from literature and edit their thoughts into a short essay. In part, I thought that the series would force me to publish regularly (and the extra income wouldn’t hurt). But mostly, I was looking to ask questions I wanted to answer badly for myself. What inspires you? I wanted to query my favorite writers. Where do your best ideas come from? And how do you possibly manage to turn those flashes of insight into something crystalline and whole?
Five years later, I’ve spoken with more than 150 authors for “By Heart” (and compiled Light the Dark, a collection based on the series). The conversations have frequently—by total chance, but with spooky accuracy—highlighted my own creative ups and downs. I’ve also learned that these solitary, patient creatures, whose books can take the better part of a decade to complete, tend to have something in common.
More in this series
More than knockout sentences, more than their grasp of human character, more than anything that might broadly be termed “craft,” novelists are masters of one skill primarily. Their genius lies in an ability to suspend their skepticism over the long haul, to persist in the belief that—no matter how hard things get—the work is meaningful, and worthwhile, and will one day pan out.
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As my interviews got underway, I discovered something surprising: The artistic process never seems to get easier, not even for the most successful, famous authors. They, too, wasted months of time chasing down material that ended up being no good. They, too, were sometimes wracked by self-doubt. They, too, also sometimes felt a sudden, sweeping urge, as bold as lust, to give the whole thing up. A few glowing reviews in the Times won’t change any of that.
“The job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time,” said Mark Haddon, whose best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time went on to become a critically acclaimed Broadway play, when we spoke:
It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. … I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.
What makes the process so difficult? I think it’s the nagging feeling that the words aren’t enough, the painful recognition that your language still falls far short of the beauty and complexity you’d wanted to spill across the page.
That’s true even for someone like Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, whose books have sold tens of millions of copies. For him, disappointment is baked into the experience of authorship, and even the finished product rarely measures up to the initial gleam of inspiration. “You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true,” he said:
And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.
That’s the killer: that gap between intention and output. You don’t have to be an artist to understand this. Most people wake up in the morning fully intending to be their ideal selves. To finally get themselves to the gym. To be a better student, a better parent, a better citizen, a better friend. That’s why it’s so painful to fail, as inevitably happens: It hurts to feel the distance growing between who you are and what you wish to be.
In the creative arts, there’s a name for the refusal to face that pain: writer’s block. Contrary to popular wisdom, being “blocked” is not about running out of things to say. Instead, it’s succumbing to the unrealistic expectation that your work must Be Great Now. It’s a decision to remain silent rather than speak and maybe stumble. It’s the determination to avoid failure, which is a great way to ensure that the humbling work of getting better will never begin.
But if you’re willing to lower your expectations, to temporarily mute your inner critic, then incremental progress is always possible. And that’s where novelists have struck on something. Above all else, writers are people who allow themselves the freedom to suck—unrepentantly, happily, even. They’ve learned through hard experience that out of failure comes something better. And that the only catastrophe, really, is the refusal to keep trying.
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Some people pay therapists to listen to their troubles. But as I struggled with my own work, my calls with veteran authors were a constant reminder that my process isn’t crazy—it’s not even unique.
Richard Bausch described rewriting individual scenes dozens of times to get them right. John Rechy will go through so many drafts of a book he loses count. Amy Tan’s process is so painstaking that she likens it to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draftwork. “You know you’re going to write a bunch of garbage, most days,” Victor LaValle told me. “And that’s okay.” The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.
Some novelists conquer their anxieties through ritual, using familiar fallbacks to comfort and distract. Andre Dubus III begins every writing session by reading poetry, listening to music, and typing out the previous day’s handwritten work. Ethan Canin works on a homemade standing desk, hooked up to an elliptical, so he can pedal while he works—the physical activity, he says, “takes the brakes off,” quieting his rational mind and allowing the subconscious to bubble up. David Mitchell sets the most boring website he can think of—the Apple homepage—to pop up on his browser, so he’s not tempted to scan the morning headlines instead of buckling down.
However they accomplish it, the writers I talk to all find ways to block out the slow, wheedling voice of self-doubt—the shadow self that conspires against progress, for whom the work is always taking too long, is always asking too much.
Elizabeth Gilbert described her attempts to maintain a kind of “stubborn gladness,” a concept borrowed from Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense.” “You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years,” Gilbert said:
I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. I don’t wrestle with the muse. I don’t argue. I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.
(A few years after we spoke, she tattooed the phrase on the inside of her wrist.)
Kathryn Harrison described the unorthodox method she uses to quell her inner critic, the voice that says, “Oh, those aren’t the words you want,” or “you shouldn’t be working on this part now,” or “why not use the present tense?”:
Writing a first draft, you can become paralyzed by these thoughts. So I literally tell the voices to quiet down. I praise them for their perspicacity, and I tell them how much I need them—that I will want them later. But I cannot listen to them right now, because I am confused by them. And I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever.
The willingness to be content with what is less than perfect: That’s the quality that appears repeatedly in my conversations, the defining trait that every writer seems to share. You might call that “stubborn gladness,” as Gilbert does. Haddon, in a beautiful, British coinage, calls it “bloody-mindedness.” You might even say it requires a “certain grain of stupidity,” as Flannery O’Connor once did. Whatever it is, literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering. It’s the resolve to continue laboring in the service of a task with no clear beginning, no clear end.
* * *
For years, pundits have enjoyed proclaiming that the novel is dead, that the bell tolls for literature, even as independent bookstores hold their own in an otherwise grim retail market, and the sales of print books have started to rebound. The novel is doing just fine, thank you. What does seem to be imperiled, though, is the slower, novelistic mode of thinking, the willingness to delay gratification for a larger payout later.
Deep, sustained attention is a scarcer resource than it once was. Practitioners in every industry, but especially the arts, are expected to be canny self-promoters, hustling constantly to build their brand, even to the detriment of the actual work. There seems to be a widespread fear: Go quiet for too long, and you will be forgotten.
But for the novelist, I’ve learned, bigger feats, bolder ideas unfold over the long haul—in the space where success feels uncertain, even unlikely. It’s work that will be complex and staggeringly difficult, and made up of many individually disappointing days. By focusing only on what satisfies in the moment, or by being too easily put off by drudgery and discouragement, the real work never has a chance to begin.
I’m still working on my novel. It’s five years later. Yes, the going’s slow. And I wish I’d finished sooner. But smaller goals have kept me honest, the way the regular deadline of “By Heart” has given rhythm to my years, providing something public I can look back on and point to. And in the meantime, I’ve built my life around the daily ritual of my morning writing. I skip parties and have blown off my friends’ events and shows. I’m haphazard at best on social media; my email goes unanswered. I’ve cut back hours at work so I can write, and so I make less money. I do everything I’m not supposed to do. And on days the writing itself seems flawed, unworthy—most days—I sometimes start to wonder if the sacrifices have been worth it.
Except. There are the mornings when I can feel something emerging, something I can’t be whole until I say. Those moments come and go, and the confusion and difficulty always return. But at least I’ve learned I’m not alone in this. That’s just how writing a novel, like any worthwhile task, is always going to feel: like a receding horizon, with brief glimpses of the shore.
I’ll keep at it stubbornly, and gladly, until the job is finished.