There’s A Reason You’re Stuck
For one writer, getting rid of perfectionist tendencies opened up a new way of doing things
agent or publisher I wasn’t ready. I was a mess.
When I had worked on my first book, I had readily shown bits and pieces to everyone – for encouragement, to force myself to write. With this one, I’d thought: I won’t share it till it’s perfect.
But my standards were impossible – I wanted each sentence to glitter majestically. This meant hoarding all the good sentences I’d ever written, like gold. When I felt weak, I would go back and copy-paste them into the file, swim around in them like Scrooge McDuck in his vault.
It was obvious what needed to happen. But it was only when I reached a low point – when I actually had a panic attack, my heart pumping uncontrollably – that I sought help.
After years of dithering, I showed the fragments to my agent. She looked at them carefully in her New York office and told me what I had suspected: they did not add up to a book. There were good ideas about terrorism in there, but I was focusing too much on the ideas and
the sentences, not on the story.
That one conversation was tonic. I threw away everything and began writing from scratch. My fear now was: will it take another five years? Will I be one of those authors who comes out from under his book completely aged and ruined? Here another conversation, with a non-literary friend, was helpful. When I told her the book would take at least two more years, she said, “That long?”
“That’s how long books take.” “Why not two months?”
That response shook me. I realised how much literary nonsense I had imbibed and I began working on the book, with an outline, every day, with the goal of finishing it within months. I would handwrite in the mornings in my cottage in Austin, type up the work in the afternoons, handwrite again when the postlunch coffee had surged through my system and then get back to work first thing in the morning. In the five months I wrote the final draft of The Association of Small Bombs, I never fell out of the oo . to me: plausible and powerful. And I never went back to the old sentences – never allowed myself to look. The turn to handwriting, which doesn’t allow facile tinkering, was part of getting rid of my perfectionist tendencies.
At the end of it – at the end of six troubled years – I had a novel. The novel had the tautness and speed of something written with urgency but the depth of the five years of thinking that had preceded it. Like every novel, it taught me a new way of doing things and I am grateful for it. I just wish I hadn’t had to suffer so much in the process.