Loving the Long Haul

Hi friends.

Sometimes I get questions or comments on twitter that inspire these letters. A few weeks ago, it was a series of tweets from Cheryl Strayed. That same week, another tweet stuck in my head.

A simple, plaintive request from the heart. How to stay in love. For the long haul.

My longest haul fiction project was probably my fifth book, Saint Mazie, which I had to reconfigure after the first eighty pages weren’t quite working, and I think it took me a year and a half to finish a successful draft. With my memoir, I started writing the proposal for it with purpose nearly two years ago. (And I am still working on it!)

I would like to say that I never got sick of writing these books but of course that’s not the case. Especially near the end (but also in the middle), I certainly had those moments where I thought to myself: When will this be over already? And how am I going to make it all the way to the finish line?

I asked Rebecca Makkai, author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Great Believers and three other books of fiction, about her experience with the long haul.

“I've been teaching an advanced novel-writing workshop in Chicago for nine years now, twelve writers in each one. That's 108 first-time novelists who spend one year with me out of the many it will take them to finish this book. One of the first things I tell them is that my first novel took me ten years to complete — not because I was working full time (I was) or because I had two babies in that time (I did) but because I would occasionally lose faith in the project. And because ten years is such a long time that I, and my interests and my tastes and my skill level, changed many times, and the book had to keep up.

What I've seen is that every single novelist I've ever taught loses hold of their book at some point, or at many points. The important thing to understand is that when you lose your book it's not because it's a flawed book or somehow the wrong book, but because no one can sustain continuous ardor for anything (or anyone) for several years. It's still your book.

The following are not reasons to give up on it: You're mad at it, it needs tearing apart and putting back together, you get scared of failure, you get scared of success, you can't stand your own voice, the whole thing is ridiculous, someone didn't like the part they read, you're supposed to have a real job, you can't remember what you're doing, this thing is a mess. Here is the only reason to give up on it: For a sustained period of time (several months) you have absolutely no feeling toward it whatsoever. Even then, don't delete the file. You never know.”

“You never know” is such an important takeaway from Rebecca. That not-knowing feeling of one way or the other – so why not just try and finish it? I always think if I’ve made it to a certain point (for me it’s usually about a hundred pages or so), why not just see what happens when I make it to the end? I’m certain to learn things along the way, and I’ve made it that far already for a reason. I can always throw it away if I don’t like it. And I’ll never know what it could have become, though, if I don’t give it a shot.

But how do we get to the place where we’re ready to give it a shot? I asked for some tips from my friend Jason Kim, a screenwriter who has written for “Girls” and “Barry.”

“I think the trick is to know what to tune out and tune in,” he told me. “I build up a lot of negative feelings surrounding a project sometimes. So I have to tune all that out.”

So what does he tune into instead? “I usually make a list to remind myself what I love about the project, absent all those external conditions. It’s like returning to home base. And usually I also imagine what the project would be if I had complete control and freedom. And then step number three is to think about who its intended audience is: Who is waiting for it, that needs it, that will benefit from it. After I do all that thinking, then I’m like OK, I guess I could write one sentence today.”

Jason added one caveat. “There is a case to be made for taking breaks. This cycle of punishment that we enforce on ourselves: Got to meet that deadline, have to be productive, if I don’t get this done my day is a waste, without productive work I am worthless, etc. All that crap is just American nonsense. And maybe it’s kind of a great thing to step away from your heart for a while, and then return to it.”

Another suggestion: get yourself a muse.

In truth, I am extremely American in that I often associate my self-worth with my productivity, although I am learning to adjust those expectations. But I still feel – and I think this is positive – in a partnership with my work, and that if I just walk away from something without playing it out, then I’m not holding up my end of the bargain, the bargain being what we do when we live a creative life. The work, the words, the characters, the ideas, have always felt like an honor to receive, and to ignore them or treat them poorly or disavow them entirely feels like a rejection of that gift, of possibilities in general.

So I stay with the long-term projects, liking them even if I don’t always capital L-love them, because I recognize that partnership, and the give and the take of it. The work is your friend, rather than your enemy, or a stranger. You don’t have to stop admiring or connecting with it even as you wrestle with it. With courage, commitment and an open-heartedness, we can ride all our projects out to the end.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support Youth Empowerment Project.