“But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On January 25, I made it across the finish line: 159,488 words—the first draft of my novel—done. My friend, Jen, also a writer, attempted to celebrate my achievement but I was having none of it. Thank you, no—I wasn’t excited. I was too busy to be excited about finishing my magnum opus. I had errands. I had to go to work. I would be excited later.
Truth was, as exhausted as I felt, as relieved as I was to have finished, I could not feel anything.
I began writing the book on November 3, 2017. It was mostly written between the hours of 5 and 6 am before work and, to the extent possible, on weekends and at night. Fourteen months. Twelve, if you subtract May and June 2018 during which travel for work stuttered my progress. Before this novel, I had never written a narrative of this scope, scale or duration. The task was tinged with overwhelm at all times, dark clouds hanging low on the horizon. I calmed myself with blinkers—avoidance therapy, I called it. I focused only on the chapter at hand, part by part, and trusted that the narrative scaffolding I had constructed would hold up to the end.
For years, I told myself I couldn’t write a novel. I said I wasn’t interested in writing a novel. I didn’t have time to write a novel. I pitied friends who worked seven to ten years on novels and had no finished manuscripts to show for it. Now, I have a novel draft of my own. Now, I am one of them.
Now, in the dark of the morning, no novel to write, I miss the strange security of an all-encompassing project. Now, with perspective, I see how committed I had become. Despite my gnawing concern of being unfit for the task at every turn, writing a novel gave urgency and purpose to my work. It called for newfound rigor in my practice. As Annie Dillard says, “A work in progress quickly becomes feral. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.” Each day, I found a reason to return to the story, if only to keep the beast tamed—and to trick myself into acting like its master.
When I began, I faced daily overwhelm. I was Writing a Novel. It was exhilarating, too. For the first time in my life, my work felt bigger than me. To my surprise, writing a novel didn’t feel like yet another obligation—it felt important. I looked forward to it. Day by day, the writing came more naturally. Purpose became practice. It wasn’t easy, but the pump was primed and, when pressed, it ran freely. That’s why those two months of pause were a pain to work back from. The only remedy was doing the work, which I knew how to do, but it was grueling to regain that ground. I counseled myself back into practice. Just wake up. Make coffee. Write. Repeat.
Each morning, I woke up at 4:51 am. (A nod to Fahrenheit 451, if you’re wondering.) I boiled water for coffee so that I could begin writing precisely at five o’clock, knowing that I’d have to put down the novel and get ready for work at the stroke of six. Crazy? My body didn’t think so. Each morning, it was trained to wake in darkness, to sip that thick, rich, sweet coffee and start writing. An overarching goal gave me purpose; purpose helped me forge a practice; practice helped me to produce a novel. The cycle fed on itself.
Now, in the dark of the morning, alone with my coffee, I wonder: What is worth getting up to write?
I have not yet found the answer. There are essays I’m half-heartedly nursing. I am distracted by the snow, the ice, wondering how to get to transit safely on Monday and if I can make it back home again before the next storm hits. I’m gathering thoughts on rejection and failure for a friend who is preparing to give a talk to MFA students. I’m avoiding chores, pottering around the house aimlessly. Nothing I’m doing feels worth getting up for, certainly not at 4:51 am. I am a post-Olympic athlete who has gone on a celebratory bender and cannot fathom re-entering the gym because the twenty-five pounds of blubber she has gained feels insurmountable. I miss my regime but cannot shake off the dragging inertia, especially now that I know first-hand the work, the sacrifice, the commitment it takes. But what else would I do?
It is too early to edit the novel. My mind is cluttered with lingering fragments. The end of the story is also the beginning of a sequel. Without intending to, I left myself a return path to this world in future volumes, should I choose to revisit. I’m not ready to go there, but I don’t know where else to go. A part of me knew this chaos was waiting on the other side of finishing the book, which is why I could not get excited when I finally did just that. The name of the game is ennui. I need Cher to slap me in the face and say, “Snap out of it!”
I have produced a tiny, beautiful thing that now lives on its own. It’s tender and imperfect, it cannot yet hold its held up, but I am proud because I put all my energy into making this thing and it was born. Its exit from my daily practice has created a loss inside me, a vacuous open space once filled by something secret, something wholly mine. We whispered to each other in the dark, a language no one else was privy to. Now, we are no longer connected inside, no longer dependent upon each other.
When the book has had a chance to settle, I will return to it. We will be teachers of each other again some day. I will shape it into adolescence and set it free into the world. But not yet. For now, my task is figuring out how to carry forward what I learned to make the next thing. Writing a novel taught me how to practice. It showed me the tools needed. It showed me what to keep and what to discard. It taught me how to transform the seedling of an idea into a complex, solid form that could breathe on its own. It helped me prove I could go the distance. Now, I’m looking for the next path.
It may be a while before I stumble on the next idea worth waking at 4:51 am each day to write. It seems that writing—period—is the most important practice to continue until the next muse appears. The pump must stay primed for the water to flow. As Annie Dillard says, “The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are her life’s work.” But it’s the work that allows these passionate subjects to emerge. The lesson: Wake. Write. Repeat.