I’m reading an award-winning novel. A town adjoining mine selected All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, as this year’s “Lake Oswego Reads” novel. I find reading novels more difficult than non-fiction, so I read only the very best. Doerr writes about the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 through the “eyes” of a young blind Parisian, Marie-Laure, who had escaped to Saint-Malo in Brittany with her father from Paris; and through the eyes of a German cadet-soldier (Werner) fighting to protect Saint-Malo from the Allied invasion. I learned Doerr wrote this story, with its unusual very brief chapters alternating between the main characters, over 10 years. The author shows first-hand knowledge of conditions in France and Germany during that time.
Writers must hide their work, until it’s ready for others to see. We seldom know what the writer experiences as he or she struggles to find compelling stories, do research/ interviews, and struggle with discouragement/motivation. It involves not only putting words to paper, editing, publishing and promoting, but also facing down terror.
The Terror of Writing
Never having written for a public audience, I recall 12 years ago sitting at my computer, beginning to write my book. Thank God (and inventors) for technology, making producing a book much easier than the pen-and-paper process of earlier days. But technology could not save me from the terror of writing. At the beginning, a point of high inspiration, my idea to present to the world with hope and healing and whatever else I thought I could deliver at the time, I sat filling the white screen–terrified.
What are you doing? What are you thinking? This is no good! Nobody will read that. You can’t write. You are wasting your time! Nobody will be interested in what you have to say. This is terrible. Why bother? You’ll never be a good writer, let alone an author. What’s the use?
Such thoughts are commonplace for even accomplished writers. “Our neurosis,” Christian author Calvin Miller, called it. I had to learn to live with my writer’s neurosis and keep writing in spite of it. I also faced other challenges.
Of the dozen or so stories of people I had interviewed, unexpectedly, in three cases, subjects blew a hole through my manuscript. After years of manuscript revisions in which I had incorporated these stories, they or their family refused to sign to give me legal approval to publish their story. Each time, I faced major disappointment. I struggled to compensate.
In one case, after I removed the story, I found no damage to the flow of the chapter. In another case, I removed part of the story that required family approval. The result from what was left in reality strengthened the chapter. In the third case, in the course of my teaching at another church, I had heard a person’s experience similar to the one I lost. I asked that person, interviewed them, wrote up their story, and substituted it for the original without loss of message.
At one point, I wanted to quit. For a fee, I had submitted my proposal to an author and writing instructor for her evaluation. I liked her and she had helped me when I took one of her courses. Her professional assessment: My sample chapters did not correspond with what I wrote my book was about! I was shaken. While my agent read her critique at a writer’s conference, the Director of the conference came by to whisper to him that he had to attend the instructor orientation at the start of the conference–right then. We had to stop. Then my agent said, “She’s right, of course,” stood up and walked away. I felt devastated. I had no way to discuss the matter, and felt I had been left hanging. I walked to my car to call my wife Elaine; I wanted to leave. Stunned, I nevertheless attended the opening writers’ meeting. There I encountered two male writers with whom I shared my disappointment, discouragement, and desire to leave. They encouraged me to hang in long enough to sit through the first meeting. By that time, I had cooled down enough to stick out the full four-days of the conference. That was my lowest point. But I also had found encouragement. Now, with this book published in May, that persistence has paid off.
Next week: motivation, book contents