As the reviews for The Lucy Variations start to come in and publication date nears, I’m thinking back over the journey of this particular book, as I am wont to do with each of my books. Two years ago in March, I was drafting it. How to Save a Life wasn’t even out yet! How is that possible? Anyway, I was drafting this book. I hadn’t yet decided if this would actually be Zarr Book 5. I had no contract, my editor had left, I wasn’t sure what I wanted or could do next. But I was working on this story, just kind of playing around with it and really, I had no other ideas so I decided to give myself to this one until I was notified otherwise by the universe.
I knew, while I was writing it, that it was going to be hard. Very hard. I knew I needed a change. I wanted to get away from first person and see what third could open up. I wanted to tell a new kind of story for me. I wanted my character’s crisis to be more existential and less tangible, more like the kind of crisis I was experiencing myself, creatively and at midlife. I’d always wanted to find the right context for exploring the relationship between a teen girl and an adult male mentor figure without it being OH NOES or sordid. I wanted to write about beauty, and longing, and feeling just on the other side of that and fearing you won’t ever be able to access joy or know yourself again.
But, I didn’t think I could do it. Oh sure, there’s that great moment when you’ve put it all together in proposal form and land a contract and you are convinced you are invincible and you spend some money and take everyone out to lunch. But then you get a deadline and sign the papers and shit gets real.
I spent a not small amount of time crying over this book. I was pretty sure it was terrible. I couldn’t write it. Third person was too hard. No one would be interested in this story. It was weird. I didn’t know what I was doing. I only was able to push forward by accepting the thought: “This will probably be my big, weird, overambitious, disappointing disaster. And that’s okay.” Yes, I succeeded in writing this book by completely making friends with the idea that I might have a massive failure on my hands. (I wrote about it here on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, and I think that post came at least in part as an attempt to convince myself.)
There are so many ways to experience fear of failure. Allow me to relate a little anecdote that involves my dad teaching me how to ride a two-wheel bike. I believe the phrase, “Just fucking pedal!” was uttered. Or yelled. At me. That’s all you need to know about that to get the gist of that situation. I responded to that by fucking pedaling and learned how to ride a bike, crying all the way, ashamed and just wanting my dad to not be mad at me or think I was a dummy. That’s not the kind of fear of failure I need in my life anymore. (And this is in some ways part of Lucy’s story, too…)
But – fear of failure is a natural, human, rational emotion. I don’t think it’s avoidable or even necessary to try to “fix.” Now, when I get scared, I try to say what I wish my dad had said. I know, sweetheart. It’s scary. It’s hard. But you gotta keep going because that’s what keeps the bike upright and then it’s going to be fun, I promise! You want to take a break and try again in an hour? Okay, the bike will still be here.
I don’t want to approach my writing only with puny hopes–hopes of not making people mad or not looking dumb. I’m totally willing to cry tears of frustration and exhaustion, but not tears of shame. If I’m going to fail, I don’t want to fail by inaction, distraction, paralysis, or trying to repeat comfortable old successes. I want to do it by giving myself over to the whole potentially-failing project, shaky-legged and wobbly, receiving pep talks from myself or others as necessary along the way.
It wasn’t until I read over the final page proofs for Lucy that I felt satisfied. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt: I did it. Though nothing ever matches the vision and the vision always changes, I wrote the book I wanted to write and didn’t think I could. And in that moment I knew that no matter what anyone else would think of the book down the line, I’d accomplished something deeply important to me.
When people ask what’s the best thing about being a writer, that’s what I can never articulate. It’s a feeling of personal triumph. It’s a battle you fought, against all of your worst fears and insecurities and predictions of doom and homelessness and blacklisting and having to flee the country. Only you know how close you came to not doing it, to running away, to intentionally getting your hands caught in industrial machinery so you’d have an excuse for missing a deadline, to bailing off the bike because it hurt too much to have those mean voices yelling at you over the gentle version of you that knows better.
Maybe this isn’t true for all writers. And maybe some people get this feeling by running a marathon, going all-out for a promotion or career change, saving a marriage, saving yourself by leaving a marriage, loving a child, forgiving that parent that yelled at you instead of encouraging. It is all damn scary. But fear–even to the point of feeling hopeless–isn’t a sign we should stop doing the hard thing. (Unless you’re facing down a saber-tooth tiger or rabid hound, okay, props to biology for the role fear plays.)
We move forward and through, and the rewards in that act alone are immeasurable. I’m at that stage I always come to in the writing process of savoring that, for these last few weeks while the book is mostly mine, then soon I will happily turn it over to you–because that is the completion of the satisfaction, wanting, hoping, to move others with what moved me or them making unexpected connections completely apart from my vision–and then see what’s next.