I’ve started the first round of edits on the sequel to my novel, Mesabi Pioneers. The first novel, which took more than a year to research and about eight months to write, fell out of my head like rain from a cloudy sky. I opened up my mind and the words poured. The editing process seemed slow at the time, but the work was steady and even. The final round of major edits went through in a whirlwind month in which I put the rest of my life on hold. The book was everything. In the end, the novel has been well received and well respected by all who have read it.
Now as I begin the process of editing the sequel to that novel, I find myself in a different place. The words feel like rain in California. The sky is clear and blue and the air is warm but there’s no water anywhere. The lakes are drying up, and the land is as parched as the Sahara in summer.
As I ran recently I was struck by a simple metaphor, that writing a book is a lot like having a child.
First you plan. You set the foundation, which is your life. You experience things, good and bad. You fall in and out of love, you learn, you grow, you make some money and, eventually, hopefully, you find someone with whom you want to build a life. Then you have lots and lots of fun TTC—that’s Trying-To-Conceive—during which time you read all the books you can about child rearing techniques, how to discipline, what and how to feed your future little one.
Eventually, somehow, you write the first draft, and this is the pregnancy itself. Gestational period can vary depending on your conception method—traditional biological, drugs, medical intervention, adoption matching—but it all comes down to the same thing: it’s exciting at first, and then it becomes painful, drawn out, and uncomfortable. Sometimes the novel flows well, you feel great, you are flying high. Other days the baby kicks and screams and your bladder always feels full and your back hurts and your feet hurt and you just want to get the thing out.
When it does come out you feel exhilaration, sadness, joy, relief, blind fear, love, heartache. You feel every emotion that has ever been felt by any human in the history of humanity, and then you add your own new emotion on top of it for the next person to feel. All those feelings disperse into the cosmos and are absorbed by the force and then dispersed again and used again, and you write them down so that you can get at them again if you need them. Because you know the editing process will start soon, the raising the kid part, and you don’t want to forget the joy you feel right now. You put notes on your wall, write in your journal, create key words and tags and remember the emotion you want your book to have because you are feeling it right now, this moment, and you never want to let it go.
Then you start to edit, and those frst days of editing you still have that feeling of newness. Because this thing you made is going to be something grand, something great, you just know it. And look at that line. Isn’t it beautiful? You have to open with that. The kid looks just like you, and you thrill in every coy little smile and turn of phrase and you know you are writing something, building something, raising something, that will be loved for all time.
Until you hit the rough parts, the toddler years, the scenes you didn’t want to think about. You read about these during the planning and research stage, the moments when all will seem to fall to darkness. When the kid just wants to scream and cry and your days drag like plowshares through a rocky field and you must stop every few feet to unclog the machine. At night, after you’ve put the kid/novel to bed for the day, you drink to try to forget the trial you just went through, and to try to forget that tomorrow you have to do it again. Because like the kid the novel will not go away. It will be there, every morning, waking you up, reminding you that it wants breakfast, and it wants lunch, and it wants a snack, and you need to play with it and love it and discipline it, and you need to remember that the novel/kid does not control you but you control the novel/kid. As writer/parent that’s what you tell yourself to get you to the next day: no matter what the novel/kid thinks, it’s not about them; it’s about you.
Soon enough the novel/kid gets a little older, and the good days begin to outnumber the bad days. She doesn’t scream as much, she’s more talkative, more interactive, and you find yourself actually enjoying her company. You write scenes you enjoy reading, and you think there’s a chance other people might actually enjoy reading them, too. And you write those feelings down in a journal because you want to remember that, too, remember the good days as well as the bad so you can refer to them when the bad days come. You and the novel/kid are playing together, having fun together, and you hope it’ll last forever.
But you know it won’t, because eventually the novel/kid grows up. Eventually you can do no more for her. It’s time to send her off into the world. You give her a cover and a kiss and you wish her well, tell her to call. You keep tabs on her progress, and sometimes, like an overprotective father, you make some phone calls to get her an interview, or you call a friend who knows someone who can get her that internship she’s been looking for. And you hope the right people see her, and that they love her, that they love her as much as you have loved her. Ultimately, though, you know you have to let her go, let her seek her own way in the world. Watching always, pushing when you can, but always behind the scenes because she needs to stand on her own, now. You just want to get her name out there, that’s all.
When she’s gone you feel empty for a time. Your life was filled with hers for so long, now that she’s gone you don’t know what to do with yourself. You take up running again, build a desk, maybe some shelves for the living room. Clean out the garage. You fill your time with other things, until one day you realize that what you really want to do is fill your life with another kid. To do it all over again.
And then you go back to the beginning and you start all over again. You think the second time will be easier because you learned so much the first time, and it is somewhat. You know the mistakes you made and you know not to make them again, but still mistakes happen. You are human, and that’s part of life. You tell yourself not to let the mistakes get to you, but you look at the first one and you see how wonderful it turned out, and you tell yourself you can’t make the same one twice. Each one stands on its own, each one is unique, each one is special. You are simply there to help guide her into adulthood, into completeness.
Then you put your fingers on the keys again and you start typing.