Tuesday, July 24, 2012
When the Writer Has to Let Go
Mark Twain had a problem with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and some scholars contend he set the book aside for several years because he couldn’t figure out how to end it. Hemingway even advised people to stop reading at a certain point.
Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a book almost no one gets through high school without reading, and never wrote another. Joseph Mitchell, an award-winning reporter for The New Yorker came to work every day the last 30 years of his life, sat at his desk and never wrote anything, a victim of acute writer’s block.
When the Writer Sees Only the Bad
Now I’m not Twain, Lee or Mitchell, and neither is anyone reading this, but almost anyone who writes can identify with worrying over what’s wrong in a piece of writing to the point where you begin to doubt the whole enterprise.
My first mystery novel, The McHenryInheritance, came out as a Kindle e-book today. For four decades, I’ve been a respected writer of reporting and comment, but this is my first published work of fiction. That it’s mystery, a genre where many people expect less of an author, didn’t make it any easier to do, and I have conflicted feelings about the final product.
Sometimes I think it’s really good and should rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. Sometimes I think it’s a mess, and it will be a miracle if anyone buys it and doesn’t return it, dissatisfied. Most days I’m capable of holding both opinions within a ten-minute time span. Several times a day, in fact.
Probably the truth is somewhere between the two extremes: The book is as good as half the books on the mystery shelf at the local bookstore. The problem is, I don’t know which half.
How the Newspaper Business Helped
What has carried me through the rough spots and the pre-dawn wide-awake hours of doubt, more than anything else, has been my newspaper experience, particularly being the editor of a daily community paper.
Facing a deadline every day develops a discipline tempered by perspective. A reporter, hunched over a computer, trying to polish and re-polish a story, has to deal with an editor screaming at him to turn the damn thing in. You learn that in journalism, as in politics, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If the facts are as accurate as you can get them, and the story makes sense, that may be the best you can do today. And there will be another newspaper coming out tomorrow.
For three years, as editor of the paper, I had to write an editorial every day. Every one was capably written and passably argued, but some were better than others, and some I would like to have back. But something had to go in the space every day, and I learned to live with the idea that the good ones and bad ones alike would be lining bird cages or wrapping fish within three days.
The only writers who never doubt the quality of their work are the unconsciously incompetent. The rest of us worry, and a few let the worry take over to the point where they never put their writing out. Better, I think, to do what Mark Twain did with Huck: Let it go at some point and allow the readers to decide. That’s scary, but holding on to a book, or any other piece of writing, in search of elusive perfection is at some level allowing your fear to triumph.