The sound of words often hits faster than sense. I read once that T. S. Eliot sometimes heard what a line should sound like before the words came to him, a rhythm he would feel and fit words into. I know he’s far from the only poet who’s said that, and, of course, the same thing can happen with prose. When it does, it’s amazing because then it feels like I truly know what I am doing—which, otherwise, is a pretty rare experience.
This feeling can help remind me why I love to write, and why I love to read. Writing can be a long, difficult process. I worked for 10 years on my first book. Part of what kept me going was just reminding myself of what I love most about writing in the first place: hanging out in the syllables. If I’m there, there isn’t space for discouragement, there isn’t space for being miserable. Because I’m just focused on the words and not on my own state of mind, whatever that might be.
I do feel lucky to have this thing that gives me so much joy, that I find so utterly fascinating. I’m sure painters, for instance, feel lucky, too—lucky to love color the way they do, or the texture of paint. For me, it’s the feeling of words in my mouth. Words are sound, after all, which makes writing such a physical, bodily experience. Like Wharton says, “I wouldn’t take a kingdom for it.”
I couldn’t feel done with my novel until I could pick it up, read a line, and not desperately want to change all the words. That process took so much time. So many rounds, so many rewrites. I have no idea how many revisions—and I don’t want to know, because I don’t want to know how many the next book is going to take. I imagine it might take just as many.
As I was writing, I struggled with how long my process was taking, especially when friends and family kept asking about my progress. I remember, especially around year seven and year eight, how people would politely ask, “Oh, how’s it going?” with trepidation in their loving eyes. I started wishing I could wear a T-shirt to the family Thanksgiving that said Let’s talk about anything but my novel.
It did help, throughout, that I was writing short pieces—short fiction, short nonfiction, things I published here and there. I applied to a lot of things. I was always applying for fellowships and scholarships and grants. Those mini jolts of encouragement would help.
And yet external affirmation—in whatever form, whether it’s a fellowship or publication—really has nothing to do with the self that loves to write. The self that fell in love with reading, and eventually in love with writing, too. Sometimes, as I work, I truly forget I have an “I”—it’s a place that’s as close to religion as I get. That self is totally uninterested in external affirmation. Of course, I eventually have to leave my desk, and the day goes on, and that egoless state is gone. But when I’m there, it can all feel so easy, and so right. I wish I could stay there.