Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Anxious Author

There is always an empty feeling inside me after I finish writing a book or complete a big and involved project. So far this year, this is my second book and third big project that I’ve nailed the coffin lid shut on, and the feeling is always the same: What now? What shall I ever do with myself these next couple of days before I gear up for something new (or a continuation of the old, as is frequently the case)?

I return to my office upstairs and clean off my desk of all the resource materials, the source books, pamphlets and pages I’ve become intimately attached to, whose words and phrases I’ve memorized, so much so, that I can read something so many times I can picture it in the book, what side of the page it’s one and where key words are in the sentence. A map that has been a place mat on the desk for a few weeks now almost makes the red-colored wood seem naked and glaring…and empty.

I borderline on lacking purpose. It's a letdown, like a deflated balloon, as if you suddenly ran off of a cliff and there's nothing left to support you. The resistance of the deadline is gone and you're free falling.

There is no longer a pressing weight of the deadline, the excitement of the craft, of joining letters and words and sentences into something that maybe, quite possibly, somebody else may enjoy or at least find useful or remotely interesting.

I sat here and stared at the wall for a little while this evening, thinking about all the things I could be doing and what all the near future holds. My freelance job board is rather sparse, which is nice for a change. It let’s me focus on my main client for a while, something I’m sure I’ve taken for granted, but more importantly, it allows me to breath a little.

I finished writing my fourth book tonight, which has a nice sound to it, like I’m some important author, but it is more of a stepping stone to other projects, more books. Regardless, I’m feeling a little thin as a result. What next? What now? It is as if I sent my child out into the world to be judged, and that seems to be the most difficult part of the whole process. Sculpting a boy into a man takes patience and practice and years of work, work that can be torn down in no time if he wasn’t prepared properly, and a book or an article or a painting is very much the same way.

And therein lies the doubt.

The first book I wrote this year is hardly worth mentioning, and you’d be hard pressed to find it discussed in any literary circles because it’s an automotive manual best used in the fight against insomnia. Three pages into it and you’re a coma patient, unless your car’s computer is broken and then my book’s the Holy Bible, bathing you in good light of salvation. The Pulitzer Prize will have to wait on that one, though, and even though I penned 90 percent of the text, I have to share the byline even. Well, the other guy did some work—he covered one manufacturer to my six—so he deserves credit, but did they have to put his name above mine? Alphabetically, it’s the correct thing to do… that and he’s my editor’s editor, essentially two steps above me on the chain of command, as I’m just a freelancer, so my seniority counts exactly for squat. It’s akin to being an “also ran.”

After all that, I’ll still claim it on my list of literary accolades, though my biographer, long after I’m dead and dusty, will probably choose to gloss over that little gem adorning my career and focus instead upon my rampant alcoholism and my propensity for self-defamating blogs. However, finishing that monster (nearly 700 pages of mind-numbing statistics, values, calculations and charts) left me more relieved than anything else. Certainly not empty or devoid of self-worth, more as if a giant burden of responsibility had been lifted and I was finally able to see the light of day again, free from the chains. That afternoon, after hitting the final send button on the email containing the last of the Word files, I put all of my books away, the manuals, charts, page after page of notes that littered the office, and I was most delighted to see a naked red-colored desk. I had sure as hell earned it.

This time, and like the two books before the last, it’s different. I feel at a loss, like after the death of a family member or after a good friend has moved away, and I always seem to feel like that after I have invested personal energy into something that is close to me, a vest emotional interest. I hit the send button, the 18,000-word document with 186 attached images zapped from my control and into the hands of an editor, the most devilish of fiend to any writer, and I was left with a helpless feeling. I almost wanted to reach out through the wires and collect all of my things together again, coddling them, like they needed protecting from the cruel world.

It sounds silly, you’re right, but maybe mothers might understand how I feel. You see something grow and then you have to eventually let it go. I know. That didn’t help make it sound any less silly.

What’s all the fuss anyway? It isn’t really that big of a book, only around 130 pages, and I’m afraid that spot on the mantle for my Pulitzer again will have to sit empty (that, and I don’t have a mantle to begin with). But it is more the idea of accomplishment than anything, the exhilaration of risk and the chance at failure that really gets to me.

Now it’s out there. My book, in digital form, is sitting in my editor’s in-box, waiting to be slashed, evaluated, read, critiqued and then printed, written in stone…forever. The typos glaring in capital letters for everyone to see, and what’s on the line? Perhaps my confidence in myself and my abilities to do this for the rest of my life. Printing errors become the fault of the writer, and a reversed image, a transposed caption, a missing folio, reflects more on the author than anyone else in the whole process. And wait until people start to read it. What if I got something wrong? A little fact missed or I put faith in an untrustworthy source? What then?

It is a nervous time for me, probably not unlike an actor soon after the curtain drops, the stage lights go out and the applause subsides. He put a piece of himself out there and there’s no taking it back now and all he can do is ride it out, always hoping for approval but forever self-evaluating the value of his performance. Busy minds go away and review, critique and judge, analyze and find fault, and that’s what kind of society we’ve created for ourselves, isn’t it? We referee our tastes and opinions and subject them onto others as fact, and the facts always start with fault.

It must be really difficult to be a modern abstract impressionist (or whatever they call those people that break an egg on a light bulb and call it art) and still keep your wits about you, because the art they create is mostly thought of by the majority of people in this world as crap. It takes no talent to break an egg on a light bulb, but how many people can paint the Mona Lisa? How stressful to constantly be barraged by such harsh evaluation, especially over something for which you have discovered such a passion.

At any rate, I wrote a book based on a collection of postcards of my hometown, Glendora, the little town where I grew up many, many moons ago. It wasn’t a very big project, like I said only 130 pages, but it was satisfying to write. The actual writing part took much longer than I anticipated, four whole weeks, as each little piece of the puzzle had to be carefully analyzed and proven before being included into the final mosaic. The funny thing about history, especially history that is older than anyone currently alive, is that it is strife with ambiguities, little facts and figures slightly askew, that end up being anomalies shared with no other source: One person says one thing about something, and another says something completely different.

The upside to writing history is that you get the chance to change it. There was a house in Glendora that everyone has agreed to the fact that it gained a second story sometime in the 1930s, a suggestion that has been taken as law in several published books and other materials. However, by merely studying the details of a single photograph taken in 1912, I was able to discover that it was a two-story house its entire existence.

I know what you’re saying, and no, I’m sure Scotland Yard won’t be calling anytime soon begging for my help, but little victories such as those (and I enjoyed a few more during the research process for this book) chip away at the ambiguities that fester in the history of anything. Sure, you won’t thank me, but I’m sure someone out there will…maybe the person living in that house today. Who knows?

Most importantly, the project served a much grander purpose for me, as it laid the groundwork for two other books I have planned to write about Glendora, one later this year and another probably a couple of years in the future. This book gets my name out there, and like a man standing on a tight wire, no matter what happens to him, whether he falls or not, at least everyone’s going to look up and see what he’s doing.

I guess I’m just afraid of falling.

But who isn’t?

**The image at the top of the page is the front and back cover spread for my book, due out in a month or two. Start saving your nickels. I only get a couple of free copies.

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