No White Flag

Isaac gave good advice to authors. . . . [H]e sent me his two laws of writing: 1. Thou shall finish what thou startest. 2. Thou shalt not judge thyself.

– Janet Jeppson Asimov, author of Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing

Some days it feels as if I’m never going to finish this book. It’s sitting out everywhere all around me. Bits of it in notebooks. Bits of it on the computer. Bits of it still living vividly in my head. I work on it sporadically and it never feels like enough.

That leads me to the second of Asimov’s rules. “Thou shalt not judge thyself.” There, I flunk out cold. My mind races with judgment. In 1994, I stepped away from a lucrative job as an attorney with a speciality law firm in Dublin, Ohio. Since 1997, I’ve worked with many different writing teachers, always asking the same question, “Just how DO you write a book?” Most recently, I began MFA school with the same question. Every last teacher has been a helpful step along the way, but I still don’t have a book.

Of course, I’m asking a question only I can answer. I remember a cartoon strip in which a man walks into an editor’s office and asks, “Can you help me with my book?” The editor says, “Maybe. Let me read it.” In response, the man drops his head, droops his shoulders and groans, “Oh. I was hoping to have it surgically removed.” The book is inside me. No one else can write it. Some days I fear it will kill me. I imagine a scene from Alien. I’m innocently eating my oatmeal, talking to Ed about the dog. I begin to feel nauseous. As I reach for a glass of water, the book bursts from my abdomen, ripping my body to shreds.

On better days, I find peace in the daily-ness of writing, the sheer practice of it. If I look back over my shoulder, day by day, the writing gets done. Little by little, I am bringing the book to life. At first I found exhilaration in the sheer number of pages I could churn out. Now that I’m editing, quality counts. And day by day, the pages become bright and shiny. There are huge holes I don’t know how to fill and passages I know belong but not where. Regardless, I put my head down and keep pulling the wagon.

On the best days I remember that I always feel this way no matter how big or small the project. In the middle of every essay, short story, graduate school paper, blog post, and even these little newsletter essays, I feel the same hopelessness. I start off blank as a sheet. Then an idea forms. I begin to write. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, it takes a turn I didn’t expect. That’s when I get scared. I think, There’s no way I’m going to finish this thing. I don’t know where it’s going. But I keep writing anyway, keep following my mind, and something takes form. I print it all out, begin to edit, and the clay begins to shape itself. It comes together. It feels like magic. But it’s not magic. It’s work.

“Thou shall finish what thou startest. Thou shalt not judge thyself.” Perhaps there was a third rule Asimov forgot to mention: “Thou shalt never give up.”