The other afternoon around 4:15 p.m. I completed a book on which I have been working long enough to have published three other books between the time I began and finished it. How good it would be to report that I was elated at finishing and confident that I had produced a masterpiece. I was, alas, neither. My strongest feeling upon finishing, as it has been with other books I have written, was doubt. The only question on my mind was, had I honored the complexity of the subject, which is for me the only standard for a successful work of nonfiction? Neither the commercial fate of the book nor the praise or dispraise of reviewers will be able to answer the question. I’m not sure it is a question that has a satisfactory answer.
Is this gloom merely the literary version of post-partum depression? I use the comparison because writing a book has frequently been compared to giving birth to a child. The comparison, I have always felt, is lame. Giving birth entails more pain and requires more courage, and in a not more perfect but more hermaphroditic world, I’d much rather write a book than give birth to a child.
The only thing one can compare writing a book to is . . . writing another book. With every book one begins in intellectual excitement at the prospect of setting down one’s insights and observations on the book’s grand subject. As soon as one begins to write, one senses that these insights and observations seem rather thinner, much dimmer really, than one had supposed. “How do I know what I think till I see what I say,” wrote E. M. Forster, failing to add that seeing what one says is itself often far from exhilarating.
Half way out to sea in the composition of the book, one begins to wonder if one were wise to have begun this voyage. One can always quit, of course, abandoning ship, to stay with the maritime metaphor. But that means returning the advance money for the book, and, though I am a man of few principles, one of those I strictly adhere to is never to return money to a publisher. I also don’t like admitting defeat, especially when I feel utterly defeated. So one beats on, boats against the current, like the man said.
After a reasonably polished first draft of a book is completed, there comes the terror of reading what, over a long period, one has written. What one has written, it turns out, is many of the same things, over and over. The repetitions appall. Of the many infelicities of style one encounters, let us not speak. On some mornings, clearly, one was better than on others; on a lot of these latter mornings, one would have done better to remain in bed. Does the argument flow, do things hold together over these many pages? Some of the trees one has planted seem stately enough, but who the hell removed the forest?
Revision in some ways brings the greatest pleasure in the composition of a book—more, even, than the actual writing. Revision brings, too, a chance to save the all-too exposed bottom of the foolish fellow who wrote the initial manuscript. What do you suppose he was thinking when he wrote those long, looping—“loopy” is more like it—arrhythmic sentences? His spelling is atrocious, and he ain’t much on grammar, either. Calls himself a writer, does he? I’m not so sure. Well, one must clean him up as best one can.
The most depressing part of writing a book is that only when one has finished it does one finally feel ready to write a really good book on the same subject. What one has written is of course not that book—not even close. Too late, though, to turn back and start again. One hasn’t the fortitude to begin afresh—I at any rate have never found the fortitude. Nothing for it but to go with the book in hand and hope that no one else sees all the glaring faults in it that I do.
The question arises, of course, if writing a book is such an emotionally desolating experience as I have made it out to be, why put oneself through it? Some possible answers to the question are: for the money, for the bit of attention one hopes it will garner, for bringing one’s own point of view to bear on a rich subject, for the reason that one hasn’t anything better to do. But the real reason one writes the book is to be done with it, finito, and thereby have the freedom to write the next book, about which one’s observations and insights are truly exciting, one’s hopes unimaginably high.