No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty: that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not. Want to lose a friend who’s a writer? Ask her, a month in, how it’s going. Better still, ask her to describe what she’s working on. She’ll try, because she has to (“Well, it’s about this friendship between these two, um, friends . . . ”) all the while listening to the magic leaking out of the balloon, and she’ll hate you for it.
If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, aka bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.
Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave — validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and timbre: “It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.”
The problem, of course, is that our inner critic, the I. C., is whispering in our ear that we’re not even remotely on the right track — that we’re blundering around in the wilderness, in fact. Yet we still try to bully him into submission by recruiting allies from among our friends. If they confirm that yes, indeed, that first page of “The Something or Other” is immortal and they’d rather open a vein than be denied the knowledge of what happens next, maybe I. C. will shut up. It rarely works. Nine times out of 10 (the exception guarantees a bad book) the I. C. will be rubbing our nose in the truth before the week is out: the work is as bad as we suspected it was. And the loyal recruit, having foolishly interfered in this lost cause, will be collateral damage.
Think of the situation as a mouse trap baited with appeals to a friend’s decency, or one of those Chinese finger-trapping sleeves. There’s your writer, emerging from his study, sending out sticky little signals: “A good day today,” he’ll say, pouring himself a cup of coffee; or, “I think I might be on to something”; or, “I’m quite excited.” What’s the spouse, parent, colleague or long-suffering agent supposed to do?
Let’s just say this is not one of those win-win situations. If the well-meaning colleague doesn’t ask, she risks seeming unsupportive; ask, and she suffers the consequences: every syllable of her response will be studied and sifted with forensic care, every attempt at encouragement grimly accepted or politely dismissed, every stab at honesty received like a lance through the heart. Within minutes the writer will be conjuring subtexts out of thin air, divining intention, whipping up context; he’ll misread, unerringly. This will be entertaining in its own way, but it won’t be pretty.
Which leaves the unsuspecting participant only two possible pre-emptive moves, neither particularly strong. The first is to play for time, to say something along the lines of “I’d love to hear about the book, but I don’t want you to talk about it until you’re ready.” Chances are it won’t work, but at least this way the blame is on the writer: the colleague counseled caution; the author hanged himself of his own volition. Another is to adamantly refuse to hear a word until the writer stops asking, at which point the coast is clear. A third might be to cultivate the company of cowboys — illiterate ones — and be happy.
One might wonder why — besides their own pathetic need for reassurance — writers would ask others’ opinions at all. It’s an interesting question; the answer comes down to which writer you ask. Though it may be a failing on my part — the sign of an overweening ego, or a fragile one — I’ve never understood writers who workshop their stuff with their 50 best friends, then rewrite in view of their criticisms.
Writing, I figure, at least any writing worth reading, isn’t done by committee, and though I haven’t always been strong enough to live by this precept, I’ll stand by it nonetheless: Your vision is your own, for better or worse.
These reminders should be on the wall above my desk: 1. Trust a few, necessary voices. 2. Try, as much as possible, to avoid torturing these brave souls with your own insecurities. 3. Shut up and write.
Mark Slouka is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the novel “Brewster.”