When a writer friend came to visit, we took a walk to the nearby park with my family scootering and running all over the place. My friend, taking in the full domestic lunacy of my three small children asked, “How do you find the time to write?”
Before I could offer up any rote response of treating it like a job, making a habit of it, and loving what I do, my wife jumped in and began a Rain Man like impersonation of me, rocking back and forth on the road, “Course, I have to write, Yeah. Course, I have to write.” She was playing out my hidden inner neuroses on full display for our friend, our kids, and any neighbor wondering why my wife was now breaking down in hysterical laughter at her own apt performance.
I was not mad at her for this show, as it was funny, and who else would be able to identify the uglier part of my writing self, where I am uber-driven, hyper-focused, and constantly nervous about not having accomplished enough. After all, my self-identity is interminably wrapped up in a task that for most of my life I had nothing to show for. This part of me, the one my wife was mimicking, was not so kind, and often, for many years, felt like a deep burden I could not shrug.
I had realized that writing was a long apprenticeship about ten years in. I had plateaued, and sought out graduate school as a way to improve. There, I began to acquire the skills that would make me a lifelong writer. Those skills were how to deal with criticism, employ the elements of craft, use reading as a source of a material, and devise a system of creativity that was self-sustaining and maximally productive. My system meant taking notes on what I read, using those notes to start drafting a story, revising dozens of times with one craft element in mind each pass through, then seeking reader’s input until it was ready to send out for publication. If that story came back rejected I sent it through that system again. I got to a point where I always had at least one story in each stage of my production process, and so always had something to work on. When my short stories became longer, and began turning into novels, I kept this system in place, thus having many works in my sphere at a time. This also produced an attribute I was never really taught, or if I was, I never really understood the value of until now.
I was always nervous having to put aside a story or a novel draft. Part of me wanted it done, out in the world, to validate how I was spending my time. That inner Rain Man had to write. HAD. TO. WRITE!
It was this need to feel validated that swatted that inner anxiety metronome. But now, looking back on my path to publication of my first two novels, I see that time, those spaces the books had to be put aside, was essential to the process, and I should have been kinder to myself.
Novels take years to write. We change as people over those periods. I had to grow as a person and read books that gave me details, language, scenes, and character ideas to funnel into my work. I am no longer the same person that started my books. I have evolved, actually softened, got married, started a family, and kids kept coming for a few years, until I knew to go back to my manuscripts and look for moments where people love in deeper ways. I needed to find new authors like Willy Vlautin and Simon Van Booy to discover where to look for opportunities for my charters to love and how to pare back my sentences. I had to discover and gorge on Ann Patchett, and Zadie Smith books to add more lushness to my sentences and see how characters interact with each other in conflicted harmony. I had to have other people find their way into my work to help me see it through their eyes. Classmates, writer friends, mentors, my agent, my editor, and wife.
We do not live in a world that rewards waiting and increasingly cannot handle waiting. Yet a writer has to have endurance to do one menial task after another, ad nauseam. It is an easy thing to burn out doing. Many writers tire, put their rough drafts aside, and never return to them. Though this is when you have to live your life and be kind to yourself and those who humor your writing obsessions while you are hunting for the keys to reignite yourself. This is the step that saves the writing and the writer. This shelf time is essential to gain objectivity on that project, grow as a writer and person, and read widely. At some point, something you read, write, or experience will deepen your understanding of a moment in your shelved manuscript. These little insights are keys to reenter and revise. At some point you will have enough of these keys clattering around that you will be excited to go back and improve your last draft. The draft was not a failure, it was just waiting for you to become the writer capable of improving it.
Devin Murphy is the national bestselling author of the novels The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans published by Harper Perennial. These books have been selected as Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers, Illinois Reads, and book of the year by the Chicago Writer’s Association, and Society of Midland Authors. His recent short stories appear in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Sun, and New Stories from the Midwest as well as many others. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.