By J.C. Hallman
It’s often said—or, at least, I’ve often said it—that in order to write a book you have to have a combination of profound hubris and crippling insecurity. In my experience, book projects begin with just one of these emotions, and for a while it seems as though what you do is swing back and forth between the two. Last month, I published one book and finished writing another—and that’s an odd position to be in, as it contains both emotions simultaneously.
Here’s what generally happens. I start thinking about some things, and they seem like good things to be thinking about, in the sense that I feel better for having thought about them. In fact, they’re such good things to be thinking about that before long I can no longer imagine myself not having thought about them. The person I was before is gone, and now there’s this new and improved version of me. Wonderful! Of course that thought leads to another: what if other people thought those same thoughts? Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t the world be a better place – no, wouldn’t it be vastly improved—if some other people, maybe a whole bunch of other people, thought the same thoughts I’d thought? Before long I’ve begun writing something.
And that gives way to insecurity, which may be more universal. Because what happens is that as soon you start trying to write down your thoughts, you discover that you’re not really cut out for this, it’s all coming out wrong, and why in the hell did you ever think that you, of all people, would be able to produce something that anyone else ought to read? But that doesn’t last. Not too long, anyway. Because somewhere in the work you alight on something, you get something just right, and that brings it all back: this is the thing you were born to write, as they say, and it all begins it click, as they also say. You’re completely buoyant for a while, confident and productive, and you absolutely know that it’s only a matter of time before you begin to tire of glancing down at your smart phone vibrating with the news that you’re going to be recognized by yet another auspicious prize committee. Why can’t they just leave you in peace?
Finishing a book may require a dozen or more pendulum swings between these two dramatic extremes. And to those who live in close proximity to you as you veer back and forth—those who, were you a detonated bomb, say, might wind up as collateral damage—these radical veerings will likely appear as symptoms of some deadly ailment, for which they will feel qualified to prescribe a range of treatments and pharmaceuticals. You should ignore these rude metaphysicians. I do. I find this particularly easy to do as I approach the end of a book, because of course approaching the end means that the hubris side of me has won out. How else could I have seen it through? And from there, there is always an extended period, from the finishing of the book to its publication, when the hubris side holds sway. Sometimes this period is too extended. The lag between delivering a completed manuscript and seeing the finished product on the shelves is generally about a year, but can sometimes be much longer. This is both a gratifying and excruciating time because while it’s frustrating not to see your work out there in the world, it’s also satisfying because you know that it’s only a matter of time before it does get out there in the world and make all the difference that you once suspected it might.
That all comes crashing down when you finally get published. Regardless of whether you become a huge hit or vanish with a whimper, the actual reality of publishing is kind of anticlimactic. Even if you do win prizes, publishing a book never truly satisfies the confidence you initially had to have to undertake the project in the first place. And that brings back the old crippling insecurity. But now it’s different. Now you realize that you hadn’t ever actually been swinging from hubris to insecurity. Rather, the insecurity was always there, lurking deep inside you, like herpes virus hiding in your spinal column. You don’t talk about this, of course. No way! Your publicist has taken you aside (actually it’s a phone call) and made sure that you know that no one wants to hear about your insecurity. You receive strict marching orders: in all of your radio appearances and Facebook status updates you will make the publication of your book seem like a dream come true. You will publicly smile, and privately wallow, and it will be in those private wallowings that, after a time, you will begin to toy around with new thoughts, thoughts that maybe some other people should think, too.
And that’s why my current predicament is strange. For the past 14 months, ever since I finished writing the book I just published, I’ve been slaving away at another book, fretting almost constantly that I was a fool to have undertaken it. I’ve managed to stay at even keel only by reminding myself that I had another book in the can, as they say, and that it would be only a matter of time before those thoughts got out in the world. That all changed the moment the finished book appeared and I completed the book I was writing. It became apparent, very quickly, that the now published book wasn’t going to be read by everyone. And not a soul less would have satisfied me! That was sad, but I had a salve—the new book, which with a burst of hubris and energy I had completed! Quite obviously, it was only a matter of time before that book got out there in the world and made all the difference.
And that’s the real writing life, I’ve realized. Hubris and insecurity don’t take turns or strike some constructive chord. You need equal dabs of cocky and cowardly, but you don’t really swing between the two and it’s not a particularly harmonious note when they both sound at once. Rather, the real writing life is some version of the “ever not quite” credo of pragmatism. It’s both always ever, as it ever was and will be.