and if you’re brave enough to start,
you will.” ―Stephen King, On Writing
“I hate writing.
I love having written.” ―Dorothy Parker
In my younger years, I suffered from a condition called “rapid labor.” My first child was born about two hours after my water broke; the second shot into the world, in about forty-five minutes, like a downed pilot ejecting from an aircraft. After my obstetrician finished his stint as a temporary football receiver jumping for a Hail Mary pass, he told me that if I decided to have more children, I would need to schedule the delivery.
Not schedule a C-section, mind you, but a regular, natural birth.
I had a lot of fun thinking about how that conversation might unfold. “Hello, Dr. Samuels? Yes, this is Elle Lothlorien. I finally got ahold of my fetus, and she says that Friday at four o’clock would work just fine for the delivery.”
Whenever I recount what I call the “Rapid-Labor Tale of Horror,” anyone with two X chromosomes in a twenty foot radius gloms onto the conversation like a refrigerator magnet, each of them offering unsolicited stories of fifteen, twenty, thirty hour-long horror shows endured while birthing one or more offspring.
Before I had children, I couldn’t imagine doing anything for thirty hours, no matter how fascinating it was. And if you threw in words like “unremitting pain,” “sobbing,” and “screaming”—well, I would’ve walked away from that conversation.
One of the most common questions I’m asked as an author is: “How long does it take you to write a book?”
My go-to answer? “Less time than it takes a human embryo to fully gestate, but more time than it takes to kill a new houseplant.” Which is to say: anywhere from one to six months. Such a nice, tidy answer, yes? The problem is that it leaves out important words like “unremitting pain,” “sobbing,” and “screaming.”
It’s eerie how similar birthing a novel and birthing a baby seem to be. Publishing vernacular is littered with these pithy (yet telling) bits of writing advice:
- “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.” In other words: sometimes you have to delete the parts of your book that are only there because you think they’re awesome, not because they serve any real purpose.
- “It’s hard when you put a novel out into the world like your first-born child and someone tells you that your baby’s ugly.” Translation: Your first one-star review on Amazon stings a little.
- “She received the remainder of her advance only after she delivered her completed manuscript to the publisher.”
A few months ago, I met a woman at a conference who had recently self-published her first novel. Her sales were flat and she was despondent. “It took me a year to write that book,” she said, “and it was a complete waste of time.” She shrugged. “I’m done. I quit.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, thinking I hadn’t heard her correctly.
“I quit. I tried this, it didn’t work out, and so I quit.”
I’m not actually sure she got to the end of the sentence before I started laughing—long and loud. My chortles spread like kuru through those gathered ’round until every author there was enjoying a big, fat belly laugh. “Good luck with that,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes. “You can’t quit.”
She frowned. “What do you mean? Why not?”
I stopped laughing. “Because I’ve tried.” Expressions turned somber and serious as several people nodded their heads in mixture of sympathy and agreement. “Hell, I never even wanted to be a writer in the first place.” Around me, more nods of agreement.
So why do writers, particularly of novels, do what we do?
Why do we sit alone at a keyboard, laboring hour after hour, day after day, book after book, listening to the little voices in our heads? Now many years into my “published author” experience, I’ve had ample opportunity to think about why I do this. And the answer is simple: I can’t NOT write.
I do NOT write because I want to—I very rarely do.
I do NOT write because I have to—no one is forcing me.
I do NOT write because I should—most of the time I’m convinced I shouldn’t.
No, I literally can’t NOT do it. At times, I am consumed by the stories in my head, by the characters in my mind who are as real to me as you or my mother or the guy who makes my chai latte at the local coffee shop. My head is a party, everyone’s invited, and they all want to talk to me. An author is like Ricky Gervais’s character in the movie Ghost Town. If ignored, their characters will simply follow them around everywhere they go and beg you to just listen to them. Just for a second, they’ll say. I have something important to tell you, they’ll say.
For two weeks in August of 2012, I went to Australia, where I managed to drop my laptop on the ground and crash the hard drive in a parking lot somewhere between Sydney and Surfer’s Paradise. This was a downer because I had planned to work on my current novel while my friend was taking her turn at the wheel. But when I realized that my computer was dead, I was a little bit relieved. Finally! I thought. A real vacation!
Not so much, it turns out. What ended up happening is that I lasted about twenty-four hours before I bought a notebook and a pen in a gift shop and, over the next few days, rediscovered fine motor muscles that had atrophied from disuse over the last ten years. When I woke up one memorable morning, my hand was so cramped and stiff that I had to soak it in a sink of hot water just to get my fingers out of their claw-like position.
Why do I write? Why, especially as I near the end of a novel, do I often go days without showering or talking to another living soul? Why do I labor over a keyboard, bracing myself for the creative contractions that hit me regularly every few chapters, during which I’m sure I’ll never be able to write another word? Why, after I deliver a novel, do I take a month off and then dive right back into another three-to-six-months of solitary confinement?
“You must love it,” people say to me.
“It’s a labor of love,” I typically respond. I say that—”it’s a labor of love”—and it is, but please, Please, PLEASE don’t mistake me, not even for a second: I do NOT love writing.
It. Loves. Me.
And it loves me enough for the both of us.