When the young ballet dancer in Billy Elliot is asked what it feels like when he’s dancing, he replies: “Once I get going, I forget everything . . . sorta disappear . . . feel a change in my whole body like this fire in my body . . . just there, flying like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, electricity.”
Why does any artist create? It’s a cliché but true: Because we have to. Dancers have to dance. Chefs have to cook. Painters have to paint. Writers have to write. Immersed in the creative process, we’re transported to places that transcend day-to-day existence. We do forget everything, if only for a moment. I’m a punctual person and always have been, but when I write, I burn things on the stove and leave friends waiting at train stations, not because they disappear but because I do. When chemotherapy to cure my lymphoma rendered me unable to swallow or shit without excruciating pain, writing alone whisked me out of my body and into the pleasure centers of my brain where everything is pure creation. In that place, on rare occasions, the stars align and sorcery takes over, enabling me to give birth to a single thrilling sentence, releasing a burst of energy, orgasm, electricity. “Yeah, electricity.”
I might have been a great writer rather than a good one if a lifetime of other sorts of experiences hadn’t intervened, slowing my progress in developing my craft. My first setback took place at the age of twelve when my Mom looked askance at the lovemaking scene I’d written in chapter seventeen of my first unfinished novel. Then there was graduate school, a career to establish, houses to build, and kids to raise. Not that I didn’t write along the way. I did. It just wasn’t serious writing, meaning: I didn’t get paid. My parents were professional journalists. They earned paychecks for putting pens to paper. Not me. I got paid for doing other things. Writing was always “just for fun.”
But I kept at it, developing the craft every chance I got, trying my hand at screenplays, stage plays, and musicals for the theater, not to mention letters to the editor. Every letter to the editor I ever wrote got published, but little else did. Still I kept at it, undeterred, with kids cheering me on, my middle daughter informing me about a 90-year-old man who finally got published. “See Dad, there’s still time.”
I knew early on I had a talent for dialogue. Perhaps that came from being a psychologist, hearing people talk when emotions are high and guards are down. But I always doubted my ability as a storyteller. I could tell true stories from my life, garnering big laughs from audiences at just the right moments, but I found the idea of pulling original stories out of the air challenging. Two books assigned as part of a writing class eventually changed that: Story by Robert McKee and The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. Each provided a graduate-level course in how to craft story. After devouring both, my writing got better.
Soon after, someone suggested I read Stephen King’s On Writing. In the half autobiography, have how-to book, he prescribes writing a thousand words a day without going back to edit until the book is complete. I followed his advice. At the end of ninety days, I’d written my first novel. Ninety days after that, I’d finished a second. That was eight years ago. It took only ninety days to write each book. It took years to make them readable. I watch friends rush into self-publishing after knocking out their first drafts, telling me they couldn’t wait a minute longer to hold a copy of their book in their hands. To me, waiting seemed worth it to ensure that the book I held in mine was as well-edited and well-crafted as possible . . . maybe even good.
Over the years, I handed drafts to anyone willing to rip my material apart; worked with four amazing editors, the last two, pros in New York; and suffered hundreds of agent and publisher rejections (so did J.K. Rowling, I was told by friends, fearing suicide was imminent). As it turns out, nothing about writing is easy; I wouldn’t wish the task on anyone. But there are things each of us have to do. I never really had a choice in the matter.
The bottom line for me continues to be the development of craft. Writing a novel is different from writing a stage play; writing a stage play has little in common with writing a musical. Each type of writing has its own set of rules. My long-term dream is to write a musical for the theater and see it someday produced on stage. But as for now, all my energies are fixed on learning and becoming good at the craft of novel writing.
Finally there’s the question of when a writer is done with a book. I never finished a draft when I didn’t think it was finished, unable to be improved upon, perfect—starting about three editors and twenty drafts ago. I think my book’s in great shape now, but what do I know? I’ve proven that I don’t have a clue. But I can tell you that today, I’m able to walk through the book, sentence by sentence, and explain where each idea came from, what service each sentence performs, and why I constructed each as I did. I couldn’t have told you that twenty drafts ago. Everyone tells me that years from now when out of boredom I go back and re-read my masterpiece that I’ll hate it, appalled by lots of the choices I made—like actors who cringe when they watch their old movies. I’m sure there’s truth in that. But I’ve also experienced the opposite where I’ve walked away from the book for months, gone back and re-read it, and found myself admiring this construct and that—at times, even laughing out loud. Didn’t I know that funny part was coming? Sure. But the craft was solid and the set-up worked.
For me, that’s about as good as it gets—laughing at stuff I wrote eight years before on those perfect nights when the stars aligned.