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?

30 thoughts on “What it Really Takes to Write a Book”

  1. Thank you Laura for that bumpy ride through your process. At times I felt like I was intruding somehow just reading it. Such an epic struggle but, in my opinion, so necessary. Wishing you much love as you continue and much courage.

    1. It is validating what you wrote. I am on that roller coaster ride. Thank you for being so consistent with your work and journey. You have been an inspiration for me
      Sometimes I am in hell with my memoir, and sometimes I am in Ecstasy, Many times I am fearful and want to give up.

      And yes, whether it gets published or not.. I allowing myself to be compelled with the story I am writing. Not easy. So many “devil” voices in my head that want to bring me down.

      thank you for your most personal sharing. blessings, keep writing.. .

  2. Dear Laura
    This admission of yours has taken my breath away! How can it be, I asked myself that someone of Laura’s stature, experience, and talent, be going through such a similar process, as the one I grapple with each time I force myself to sit and write about my own history?
    I KNOW that I am doing so in order to find my demons, perhaps some spark of joy, but most importanly to finally begin to understand, accept and love myself. I have no illusions about presenting it in any form publicly. It feels to me like the most important task for me to complete in this life time, as well as feeling like a whole lot of self indulgent narcissistic bullshit.
    There are times that I am compelled to, record thoughts, feelings, incidents, as inevitably as vomting after food poisioning, and much longer periods of abstinence and rejection of the whole idea. Doubt is the most prevalent and vigilant predator.
    I think that I do not have the vocabulary, to properly express the depth of the reaction I had to reading your words this morning. I am simply stunned and feel as if my head is windmill, whirling around on my neck, as a result of being exposed your article today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for exposing your vulnerability so completely and so lovingly, in order that we anonymous souls can stay connected to our process and find the courage to continue inhabiting our dreams.
    The world would be a much better place, if it were populated by millions more of your ilk…..
    Blessings
    Jude.

  3. The line that jumped off the page for me was,:

    “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.”

    That’s what true for me. Sometimes its excruciating. Why the hell am I awake at 5:00 in the morning writing about transformation? No one cares. No one but me. And maybe that’s enough.

    I can’t stop writing. It’s too compelling. It seems I don’t have a choice. If only twelve people read my words, that will have to be enough.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Hi Laura
    Question: does your Mother ever talk back, as you wrestle, grapple and dive deep?

    All the best.
    Mary

  5. In 4 days, February 8, it will be my mother’s birthday. If she were alive, she’d be 100 years old. She died at the age of 65, and I often tell people that our relationship after her death has been far more rewarding and revelatory than the years we had together on this side of life. Her “presence” in my life has evolved (as I also have) and we are comfortable with each other, with who we are to one another – far more so than in this life. Every birthday, I write her a letter. And I feel her listening (something she rarely did in my growing-up years).

    I affirm your creative process. It’s important, as you say, regardless of whether it’s ever “finished” or published. Nature itself reflects the truth that everything is in process, continuously, ever-changing. Why should relationships be different?

  6. Deep in dissertation writing , preparation to birth the my family’s story. Thank you for sharing this. I thought I was losing it—-

    May the Teaching Muses inspire you in San Miguel..
    Big Hugs…

  7. I am so looking forward to reading your memoir.I work at a bookstore and love to read,but very few biographies.I find most of them shallow and not worth my time.”Knowing” you,Laura-the depths,your integrity,the persistence of staying with the task,all these will make for a great read.

    On another level,having lost my mother and the agony of having so much unsaid between us living on in my heart,I yearn to hear similar stories to nourish and heal-I’m not alone in that! Good Luck,Brave Woman!

  8. Dear Laura

    Thanks to you, I am discovering my creative process anew. I crave time alone in the forest to write, like Thoreau and Walden Pond, I can realize this in another 5 years or so maybe.

    Thank you for sharing your journey and your wisdom. I cannot say it enough how inspirational you are to me.

    Warmest Regards~

  9. Wow…..all these comments really touch me and feed my soul. I’ll also be looking forward to reading your book Laura. The older I get the more nostalgic I get and have started to write and illustrate short stories about my life. I feel compelled to do this as I treasure learning about my ancestors from the few letters and writings they left. It was interesting to read Maril’s comments about her relationship with her long departed mother as I feel there is a spiritual and ongoing link to those who’ve made this earthly journey and we’re all a tiny part of a much bigger picture. Your workshops and classes sound amazing Laura and a pity I’m so far away in New Zealand however I do belong to local writing, art and poetry groups which inspire me along with your blogs.

  10. Laura, I can’t wait to read your memoir! I read the book about estrangement and it helped me in attempting to restore and reconcile my relationship with my (difficult) mother. Although that part didn’t work out for me, it’s heartening to hear about others’ journeys, especially the relationship that continues within after a loved one has passed on. I also appreciate one reader’s idea of writing her mother a letter each year ~ I may try that! Keep on.

    1. Thanks so much Nicole. I’m afraid you’ll have quite a wait, but I’m glad you’re interested. Let us know what happens if you try that letter idea.

  11. After years of therapy, writing classes, conferences and three writing coaches, my book comes out next year. Write yours any which way you want. Write it.

  12. Laura,

    I can so relate to this and to your process of writing with fevered passion and then walking away for months at a time, even years. The doubts, the wondering if the writing is relevant to anyone else… I know this process and feelings and the emotional rollercoaster very well as I’ve been on the same journey for probably the last 17 years trying to write my own memoir. I totally get it.

    I believe it was a comment you made to me several months ago about when I was really struggling with whether I should even write the book because I was uncertain about being published and the exposure it may or may not get and the vunerability that comes with it. I decided then that even if not one other person even read my book, it was still a story that needed to be written and told, even if it was for my own self. And that is what I am going to do.

    Even though parts are extremely uncomfortable at times, when I write, it also shows me how incredibly far I have come not only as a survivor of abuse but also as a human being. Documenting this is very special and it needs to be told. I know the ending and it is a happy joyful one, so I will continue to write and step away when needed…. and the book will be written, even if it is just for me.

    Keep writing and processing and writing and processing.
    It’s worth it. Even if it is just for you. Especially if it is just for you.

  13. Laura, what a lovely, honest post. How fulfilling it must be for you to realize that messy creative process you describe is the right and necessary process for you–a wonderful, liberating insight.. My best wishes to you on the success on your memoir, Sounds great.

  14. laura, i appreciate the vulnerability of your candor. i know what it is to be the one who is “supposed to know,” and the potential insecurities that come with the knowledge that i don’t know.

    super cool to hear you give yourself permission to work at your own pace.

    right now my creative process is this: i wake up, make coffee, read some inspiring words, and write in my journal until i’m done. no time or word limit. then i go outside, practice a little t’ai chi, and return to my project.

    but i’ve given myself the ultimate gifts, the time and the space i need to practice, to craft and create, to weep openly over my keyboard and stop when necessary, and to laugh like a maniac at my own glorious misadventures. and, to forgive myself, mostly, for my “manic depressive adventure.”

    i love you, laura. you mean a lot to me.

    domo arigato, sensei…

    1. Keep going, Tony. When you’ve got the fire lit under you, take full advantage. It won’t always be that way, so if you can taken advantage of it now, you’ll have lots of pages to work from–and the momentum–when life or the critic gets in the way. Blessings on your journey…

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