(on stubbornness, and fixing what isn’t broken)
Sam and I met about eight years ago, in December of 2007. At the time, I thought we were going to have a quick-flowering, perfect friendship. Life took on new zest. I felt alive and then some, as if I had fireworks going off in my heart.
Before long, though, things started to change. There were doubts and struggles. There were fights and tears. There were long periods of this isn’t going to work, let’s forget it, it’s not worth it. It wasn’t worth the frustration, for sure. It wasn’t worth the heartache.
Most people have probably been down that road with somebody in their lives. Sam wasn’t a person, though; at least not the kind of person you could invite over for coffee. Sam was the character that drove my first novel.
In the fall of 2007, I had left a trainwreck of a job. I needed an anchor, and found one in a wave of inspiration – I want to write a book! – and an idea for a character. Not a chapter outline, not a plot, just a character. I had a vague idea that I probably needed more, but I also had a fire in the gut that kept me up writing long after midnight, and got me up to try again at dawn. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that something was banging away on the inside of my brain.
At first I thought, “I’ll finish this project in a few months.” A few months stretched to a year. Then another. During that time, I took writing classes and found out how much I didn’t know. I tried some short stories (pathetic) and sent a couple to journals (bad idea). The book blazed away in my head, but more and more often I seemed to be staring up at the summit of an unscalable mountain. Maybe a better writer could get there. I couldn’t.
Doubts and struggles, fights and tears. Why am I doing this? I should give up. I learned more about the writing world, and that vast unknown took on concrete and discouraging shape around me. Do you know how hard it is to get published? Do you know that people don’t read books anymore? Nobody’s ever heard of you: do you know you don’t have a chance? I had countless reasons to quit and only one reason to keep going. The book demanded it.
At the same time, though, Sam refused to do what I wanted. Where was the searing, gorgeous novel that was going to change the world? I was giving this book the best of my energy and discipline. Why was it turning out so quiet, so understated…so too much like its writer? It was supposed to be better. I was supposed to be better.
Sometimes you think you can fix a person. If you try enough times, if you do the right things, you will turn that person into what you want.
Sam and I started over more times than I want to remember. The radiance went out of the project and stubbornness took its place. Again and again, I looked for the perfect angle, the magic bullet. Every time, I felt like I was using up the last sparks of a fire I wouldn’t see again.
Finally, last spring, I dug out a draft from a few years ago and took a look. It was quiet and understated, everything it had always been, and I saw plenty of clumsy work by a writer who didn’t know the craft. But I saw something else, too: the old fire.
Maybe I was too tired to do better. Or maybe this was what Sam needed to be, and I needed to let the book – and me – be ourselves.
Now, eight years after we met, Sam has gone back out on submission and I’m playing the waiting game writers know too well. Rejection has happened a lot. It never seems to get less hellish.
At the same time, though, this book was the reason that my writing hobby became a life-driving force. It was also the reason that I learned to be proud of my work for what it was, not for what I thought it should be.
Sam and I have taken this trip together. No matter what happens next, I’m glad we did.