What it Really Takes to Write a Book

As many of you know, I’m hard at work on a memoir. It tells the story of my tumultuous, transformative relationship with my mother: two souls who just couldn’t quit each other.

I’ve been writing bits and pieces of this book for the past 10 years. A lot of the original source material is coming from boxes of old journals dating back more than 40 years, as well as fat folders of correspondence between me and my mother. I also took tons of notes during my mother’s dementia and decline—my observations, my thoughts, her stories, our dialogue. My mother was a complex and wonderful human being and she makes a great character. And there was definitely lots dynamic conflict between us—–we spent years at war and then reconciled—and then went through it all over again at the end of her life–all the makings of a great story.

I’ve thought about telling our story for years—but I haven’t been ready. I live a complex and busy life. I’ve doubted my capability to pull it off, certain I didn’t have the writing chops to take my work to this next level. And being a writing teacher myself isn’t always compatible with finding time to write myself.

And let’s face. I’m flat out terrified. I’ve published seven non-fiction books in my career as a published author, but I’ve never written a memoir before. It’s the hardest (and most exciting) project I’ve ever taken on as a writer. It’s overwhelming. Excruciating at times. Many times.

I’m going to tell you a secret. Most of the time I work on this book, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. This “book” started as a series of short exercises, was initially drafted as a (failed) play, has had bits of it acted out on the stage, and has now, after several years or hit or miss exploration, coalesced into its current form as an epistolary memoir, written in the form of composed letters to my dead mother.

As I’ve gotten more serious about this project, I have observed myself going through this repeated cycle: Getting deeply engrossed it in to the point that it’s all I want to do—and I resent anything that gets between me and the book. Then life intervenes: I teach a retreat, take 18 people to Peru, have 20 relatives over for Thanksgiving, or our kids come back to California for a visit from far away—and I completely lose the thread of the book.

Once the connection is severed, I forget there even is a book. I think of it dismissively as a relic of some former life, some more incarnation. I’m certain it’s boring, unimportant, self-absorbed, unnecessary and uninteresting—to me and to anyone else. What was I thinking? Why did I ever want to do that anyway?

Then something triggers me to pick it up again. And I approach it with complete fear and trepidation. I procrastinate like crazy. I have anxiety attacks. I can’t sleep. The book pulls me and repels me at the same time.

And then one day I get really brave and I go out to my office, light a candle, turn off my wifi, leave my phone behind, and I sit down and read some of the pages I’ve written. And I get pulled in. Intrigued. I laugh and cry as I read. I realize how important this story is to me. I write something new. I edit something old. I have an epiphany. I get a new idea. I start scribbling. I start typing. The hours pass. I forget to eat. I forget to pee.

By the end of the day, I’m hooked, and it’s all I want to be doing.

Whether or not my story will ever get published, regardless of whether it will be compelling to anyone else, it’s certainly compelling to me. And I’m growing as a writer in ways I never anticipated—after 30 years of “being a professional,” I am learning things about the craft of writing that are deeply satisfying, intellectually stimulating and definitely creating new synapses in my brain. I don’t complain about my memory failing anymore.

Each time I fall into the hole of hating the book and discounting my abilities, each time I set it down for weeks or months, I’m certain something is wrong. Why do I keep doing this? Why do I doubt myself? Why do I stop? And when I’m deeply absorbed in the creative process, I’m certain that something is right. But the other day, I finally got it: this is my creative process. There is nothing wrong. This is how I write a memoir. This memoir. This is how I digest my life on the deepest level. This is how I grapple with deeply challenging material. This is how I deal with not knowing where the story begins or ends. This is how I get to the deeper layers—the story under the story. This is how I find the things about myself I need courage to face.

need to step away from it. I need to set it down. I need to completely distance myself from it in order to come back with fresh eyes, fresh energy and fresh insights.

Your creative process may be very different than mine, but at least for this book, I’m relieved to finally accept that I will go through this process over and over and over, all the while making slow by steady progress toward the next draft (and yes, there will be many drafts) and maybe finally some day, a finished book.

It makes me happy to have had this epiphany just when I’m about to leave to teach at the San Miguel Writer’s conference. Between getting ready for the trip, being there for a couple of weeks and then recovering from travel, it will be a month before I have the bandwidth to dive back into my memoir again. I know in the meantime I will forget it, dismiss it and denigrate my own commitment and abilities. I know getting back into it will be hard. I will doubt myself and the project. I will procrastinate and indulge in a lot of negative self-talk. But then I will dive in again. And I will be engrossed again.

Just knowing that really helps!

What’s your creative process like?

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