Writing a book is hard.
Writing a whole book feels like spinning plates while herding cats and steering the river. It feels like trying to stop time and like every other exhausting trope that signals futile effort. But the book has been my big thing lately, so I’ve let myself be pulled into its gravitational orbit. And I’m kind of mad about it.
First of all, there is the ambiguity. I have learned that “working on a book” can mean basically anything. One day, it might be applying surgical precision at the sentence level and the next day is all about reviewing for broad cohesion throughout. It could mean weaving a thousand threads together so they all entangle beautifully and reach their own unique and logical conclusions. It could mean reworking the structure, which after the first draft felt as organized as a pile of discarded offal on the floor of a slaughterhouse. (There were certainly nutrients there, but no one was going to wade through the chaos to find them.)
“Working on the book” can mean doing actual writing and crafting new scenes or transitions between scenes, which was rewarding but also alienating because the stories I revised took place years ago and now feel like ancient history. When I sat down to write a book, it was going to be about this specific journey of figuring out sobriety, fixing anxiety, and trying to find a home in the world. Writing it all down was going to be this big life step that captured those big life moments, but big moments didn’t stop just because I decided to write a book about them. Insights didn’t cease to stack up in the corner of my brain, collecting cobwebs while I tried to remember and revisit how I felt back in 2017.
On the contrary, working on the book gave my life purpose and my life expanded in response. Work got big. I faced expansive challenges and landed a promotion and actually felt like I deserved it. The home front felt big when for once in my semi-nomadic life I felt confident and not panicky about settling somewhere and started dreaming about filling my own house with soft sheepskin and good pots and pans. Falling in love felt big when it strapped me into an oxytocin rollercoaster and flung me through an intoxicating experience that still oscillates between insanity and this previously unfelt tranquility.
So while life progressed in beautiful ways, sometimes working on that book felt like wasting time. I struggled with stepping into the past and spending late nights regurgitating old timelines that almost don’t feel real. Everything had shifted, and writing bygone moments felt like walking into my high school a decade after graduation and realizing no one knows me anymore.
The joy thief
I swapped my toxic Netflix-before-bed habit for reading, and lately the book of choice has been A Farewell to Arms, and I love Hemingway for the dreamy way he captures the sensuality of the moment to bring you right there with him, so close that you can taste the vermouth and feel the shrapnel in your legs. I wonder if he ever tried to write about those wild game hunts on the African savannah later, from the comfort of a Paris atelier.
I am no longer there but I imagine the air smelled a certain way and likely I felt a certain way then too. But that is over now because I am here with this fine espresso that is rich like my hostess and as bitter. I may stalk the cobbled street under that moonlit mist and feel not unlike a lion though a lion would not feel or even remember but rather hunger and feed on antelope and not croissant and cognac.
And if he did, did he feel like a fraud? Probably not, right? Because he was a real writer.
crashing into the walls of imposter syndrome
The drive to accomplish the feat of writing a book for the sake of writing a book slowed me down and cost me months of doing what I love to do, which is capturing and contextualizing novel experiences and weaving wisdom into the mundane of everyday life or, you know, writing. See, I wanted to publish and hold my book in my hands because I believed that doing so would garner some legitimacy and prove that I was a writer – as if the act of simply writing does not satisfy that criteria.
Indeed, simply writing does not satisfy that urge to be validated, because you must then run the next gauntlet, which is turning your perfectly crafted collection of words and threads and narratives into a physical form. So “working on the book” can also mean all those business-y tasks associated with getting it into people’s hands, like crafting a compelling query letter or researching agents or small publishing houses. And all of that is so deflating. Everything you read tells you to just get used to living in a world of rejection, and between the lines of all those best practice articles is the bitter subtext that you’ll never be anything to anyone unless you’re already someone to everyone. I can’t help but feel this cold desperation from those guides, which were probably written by people who feel slighted because they wanted to hold their book in their hands too, and never got to.
After reading the thirty-ninth of fortieth depressing “How to Get Published” guide, my sovereignty sense tingled and I wondered if I really need some fancypants publishing house to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I’m good enough to be published. In a world of self-publishing and the expansive power of the Internet, the answer is no. I can write and publish and sell books myself if that’s what I want to do, all I really need is the content and the readers. So maybe “working on the book” should really mean building an audience for whom I am someone, and doing so by actually sharing my writing at a cadence that keeps those fine people engaged and keeps my writing muscles ever-limber.
Imagine! A drumbeat of stories and fresh insights arriving timely and relevant to the people who actually care. Imagine the powerful feeling of leaving behind the long-haul slog and choosing instead to harness the lightning flash of presence to develop an ever-expanding collection of fresh content. In lieu of buckling down and agonizing over my past lives for a book that was beginning to feel like an anchor around my neck, I just do what writers do, which is write.
In a low-hanging fog of perfectionism and expectation, writing a good, true book felt impossible. When faced with what felt like an insurmountable task, it was comforting to be lulled sweetly into procrastination. Many mornings spent “working on the book” turned into reading article after article about Bitcoin and dropshipping and off-grid Earthships while I searched for a secret answer to the problem that needed to be solved by just doing the thing I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to feel productive, but the thing I wanted to produce felt like too much.
A FLASH AND A PIVOT
I’m not afraid of going big. I have mantras like “powerful beyond measure” sketched in Sharpie on my bulletin board, inspired by the quote that is either Marianne Williamson or Nelson Mandela or Morgan Freeman depending on which inspirational Instagram accounts you follow. I know that playing small is sacrilege and doesn’t serve the world. I understand that shirking your sacred duty to deliver your gifts is wasteful, akin to making the cowardly and defeated decision to marry your kidnapper and decorate the cage of your own self-doubt.
Big isn’t the problem. Slow is the problem. I have big plans for my writing and the impact it will make. I have every intention to carry torches lit by Hemingway and Bourdain and Rumi and all the other sensitive souls who had a yen for chewing on the gristle of life. But I just don’t know how to eat that particular horse, yet, because my life and my brain are kinetic and the experiences haven’t stopped while I am busy trying to go big.
It wasn’t just big but enormous that, after building the foundation of awareness and presence that I chronicle in the book, I started feeling more comfortable in my skin than ever before. Through discovery and trial-and-error and new experiences that I want desperately to write about now, I am learning to care for myself in ways that shirk conventional wisdom and actually work. The moment I stopped chasing the revolving door of ‘experts’ and their sales pitches was the first big lightning strike of freedom. Now, instead of wondering if I’m doing things “the right way,” I am running toward the things that feel good and have served humanity for centuries like the sun, movement, red meat, and gratitude. I am discovering triumphantly how to eat, sleep, run, kiss, and cry in ways that are authentically mine. It stands to reason then that I can write and publish and be read in a way that is mine, too.
What are we doing here?
I want to tell you about every encounter with a black bear in the yard. About bluff charges and how cool it must be to wake up from winter torpor with new babies.
You need to hear about these world-changing tacos and the latest road trip through nostalgia, deep insecurity, and Big Sur.
I can’t wait to share all the recent instances of terror that I transmuted into trust.
But I haven’t yet because I couldn’t seem to focus on the ‘big’ of the book and the ‘now’ of the present at the same time.
If we are just on this journey to discovery together, and if being alive is just harnessing our curiosity and being brave enough to break through the limitations of what we think we know – then I admit that I now understand that my offerings are kinetic like that lioness that I mentioned when I was being Ernest.
So listen. I’m going to finish the book and I’m going to do it with a profound appreciation for what I learned, which is that I want to catch life in instinctual sprints and rip it to shreds to feed my pride and do all of it RIGHT NOW, not years after it has digested and metabolized and I am asleep in some tree while a herd of water buffalo thunders by in the distance. And when I do, we will sink our teeth into the moment together and be fed.
4 thoughts on “righteous whining”
You are one of my favorite writers. I will buy your book when it’s ready, in whatever form it is published. 🙂
Kelsey, thank you so much for your kind words! Next time I want to whine, I’ll remember this comment and push through it! Thanks for reading. ❤️
Imposter Syndrome. Publishing did nothing for mine. I spend so much time comparing myself to other writers. When you wrote about looking for an agent, My brain said ‘see, she’s a *real* writer’. After giving a reading one day, a friend (a successful writer) walked to me and said you published a book, that’s a really big f*cking deal. That moment was a blast of clarity for me. I have no doubt you’ll be successful. Your writing is clean and engaging and you seem to have a knack for getting stuff done.
Thank you as always for your candor and insight, Jeff! I always look forward to reading your thoughts. Keeping perspective and tracking progress relative to no one but your former self is very good advice.