Out in the World

Published in the Writing Life feature of The Washington Post, October 31, 2004.

A couple of years ago, after spending a long time alone in a room writing, I found myself eagerly anticipating the publication of my first novel. I expected the event to mark the beginning of a process by which I would separate from this thing I had made, and, as the date approached, I passed exactly the markers I’d expected to pass: I filled in my calendar with the names of the cities I would visit on my book tour; I received a box containing my first dozen copies of the book; I wrote inscriptions in them for my family and friends. Then the book and I entered the outside world, and suddenly, to my great surprise, my thoughts about the book changed.

How could this be? I had spent a decade working on this novel: reworking the characters, refining their relationships, changing the voice, altering the pacing—revising pretty much everything. As I’d worked, I’d developed a way of holding the project in my mind, a way of viewing the characters and their problems as known to me, even as I altered them bit by bit. I saw the near contradiction in this, but only occasionally, during moments of satisfaction or panic. Although I was and am a great believer in the idea that revision leads one toward important and unexpected ideas, I nonetheless viewed myself as writing and rewriting in somewhat the way that a puppeteer manipulates marionettes, from on high, from a place where all that happens on stage is under careful management. (Is that how a puppeteer works, though? All-seeing and all certain? Or does he understand that feet may wobble in spite of his aims? That heads may tilt, making stories he never intended? The metaphor has undermined me—in exactly the way it needed to.)

Once the book was published, I discovered that I hadn’t been omniscient at all—more like ignorant, really. The public reaction to The Dive from Clausen’s Pier turned me back to the book and invited me to think anew about the many thousands of choices I’d made along the way, from the gargantuan (who and what is this novel about?) to the miniscule (comma here or no?). What had prompted those choices? The reviews started me wondering, but it was the bookstore appearances—or, rather, the bookstore audiences, curious readers seated patiently on folding chairs—that made me work to understand what I’d been up to in writing the book.

This was because they had questions. “Why did you choose such a tragic subject?” (The book is about a young Wisconsin woman whose fiancé is rendered quadriplegic by a diving accident.) “Didn’t you worry that people would be unsympathetic to such a selfish person?” (After months of turmoil, she takes off in the middle of the night for New York.) “Why was she into sewing, of all things?” “I couldn’t stand the New York boyfriend—why did he have to be such a jerk?”

So . . . why had I chosen such a tragic subject? The question of what happens in the aftermath of disaster has consumed my writing life, probably because disaster struck my family when I was a child, in the form of a stroke that paralyzed my father’s right side and plunged him into a depressive spiral that ended in his suicide a little under four years later. Those years were, needless to say, terrible for all of us. Yet for the first several years of writing my book, I kept myself if not entirely unconscious then certainly unreflective about the parallels between my life and this thing I was making. Strange as it now seems, it wasn’t until after the book was published, until I started fielding questions from readers, that I began to see this: that in writing about leaving someone in need, I had given myself the chance to explore an impulse I had not allowed myself to feel in my own life.

That was just the beginning. Inevitably, some readers found my heroine’s behavior distasteful, even repugnant, and I had no choice but to grapple with what this might mean about me. Was I a repellent human being for having created such a person? For knowing how to create such a person? I could not have survived such questions 10 years earlier, at the beginning of the writing. Perhaps more significantly, the book—the imaginative work that became the book—could not have survived those questions, either.

Ten years had passed, though, and I had grown—in part, I believe, as a result of the work but also as a precondition to its completion. I could look at myself and at the book with equanimity. That the comments about my heroine were so passionate certainly helped. Somehow I had struck a nerve (an inevitable metaphor, alas, for a story about a spinal cord injury). And for every reader who argued that my main character was selfish, another spoke ardently on her behalf. She wasn’t selfish, she was saving her own life! My readers’ engagement with the book, combined with my own new distance from it (it was finished now; I could no longer alter it in any way), propelled me toward a very analytical stance, which I adopted not just toward the main character’s behavior but toward many other aspects of the work as well.

Why did my heroine sew for a hobby? Writing the book, I’d just haphazardly plunked her before a machine, but I saw now that sewing—making things—represented a balance to the unmaking that was so central to the book. And I saw, too, that this hobby was an important springboard for the character’s development—her movement toward a new, more real kind of adulthood, where pleasure in a certain activity could and should be a guide in large decisions about how to live. Had I truly not known these things while I was writing? I think I had, but only in the way we know what isn’t fully in our consciousness: with shadows concealing a great deal. Trying to articulate what I knew only intuitively would have been akin to someone poking a hole in an egg to check on an unhatched chick.

My readers prompted me to unwrap a great deal about the book. They also taught me something: a lesson in what I’ll call ownership. During the 10 years of writing the novel, I had held the deed to it, been not just the architect and builder of that structure but also its sole occupant. Now that it was out in the world, it was not only mine anymore. It was also the property of each of its readers. It had never occurred to me that it could end in any way other than it did, but some people had very different ideas, and I was scolded about the ending, second-guessed, cross-examined. At first, I tried to tell people that it ended as it had to, but after a while I saw how meaningless this was to them. Their lives—their senses of the world, their disappointments and happy choices and yearnings—told them something was amiss, and so, in their versions of the book, it was. Some of my most interesting conversations ended with both parties musing over the differences in people, the subjectivity of experience—as useful a thing to remember as any I know.

Authors tend to complain about book tours—with good reason. There is the grueling pace: the 5 a.m. wake-up call for the 6 a.m. car to the 7 a.m. flight to a state in another time zone, where you have barely 20 minutes to make it across town for your live radio interview. There is the loneliness of the fifth room-service dinner in a row. (“Please touch 55 to have your tray removed,” says the little card near the salt and pepper. “Please do not leave your tray in the corridor.”) There’s the too-small crowd at a bookstore, the introduction that gets your name wrong, confusing you with a much better known (and wonderful) writer whose name is similar to yours. There is all of that and more, a more that consists mostly of missing your family.

What’s absent from this summary—in addition to the fact that you are lucky, lucky, lucky to be out there, luckier with each bookstore added to your itinerary—is the long, strange reunion of you with your own writing process, you with your own book. Before, you thought you knew your book like the inside of your own mind; in some way, it was the inside of your mind. Talking to your readers has brought you to a new consciousness . . . and, paradoxically, reminded you that the mind is a mystery.

So, what next? As I work on my next book, the conversations about the last one remain an undeniable presence in my writing—in the part of me that thinks and in the part that sits at the computer making sentences. I’ve had moments of near-panic, wondering if I’ve lost that ability tonot know, that innocence about the mysteries of the process. And, in truth, I am more conscious as I write, more thoughtful about what I am trying to achieve. But balancing this new consciousness is an equally new freedom: to follow the idlest of ideas, down paths into the promising unknown.