Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
There comes a point in the life of a story when a writer must confront a question many of us work hard to avoid: am I ready to write?
I know because it is where I find myself. I have been researching a new book for close to a year. I have been enjoying the work, or was until a few weeks ago when I began to feel ever more caught between being overwhelmed by all the material I’d gathered and the fear that I still had so much more to learn before I could begin to write with any authority. The joy I felt in new discoveries was giving way to frustration and doubt.
What was I supposed to do next?
The book was an outgrowth of the story I wrote when I returned to writing after six years. It was the story of my best friend, Jonathan Maximon, who had died in 1984 at the age of 31. The last time I saw him was in his hospital room near Tel Aviv. He was gravely ill, yet I did not fully comprehend, or perhaps want to accept, that this goodbye would be final. He died a few weeks later, by which point I had moved to Japan with my wife. Jonnie was buried at the Negev Desert kibbutz that he had helped found. For years I tried to find a way to tell his story. A day seldom passed without my thinking about him – a picture of the two of us hangs over my desk. But I never returned to Israel, and so for 35 years never visited his grave.
I finally made the trip in the summer of 2019. I brought a notebook but was unsure whether I’d write anything. I was fooling myself. I began to write as soon as I got home. I wrote from memory and from what I had seen and heard on my trip. The subject was difficult but not the work itself. As I wrote in my first newsletter, I found in the writing a joy I had never felt before. This newsletter was launched because I wanted to make sense of what I had experienced, so that other writers could feel it too, because I believed their work would be better for it.
My editor, the wise and encouraging Paul Golob, asked whether there was more I wanted to do with the story, beyond the 15,000 words I had already written. There was, I replied, though I did not know what it was. Paul and I talked through several ideas, but the story remained elusive.
I was in familiar territory. I had written six books and though I had learned a lot about craft, reporting and writing, those books had not and could not change the way I thought, any more than experience can alter character. I was the kind of writer who spent a lot of time lost in the dark, trying to find my way to clarity. As a result, I was an especially bad proposal writer; how could I sell a publisher on an idea, on a story yet to be discovered?
Weeks passed and Paul came up with a solution. He broached it carefully, perhaps fearful I would not like it.
You have to approach this book the way a novelist would, he said.
I asked what he meant, given that this would be a work of nonfiction.
It means not writing and trying to sell a proposal, he replied. Instead, you need to write the book and then try to sell it.
To which I replied, Sounds great. I believe he was as relieved as he was surprised.
The advantage to writing nonfiction is that you can sell an idea and count on being paid for it. The advantage of writing fiction is that although you have no assurance of being paid, you are not put in the position of having to write to please an editor. I have done that many times, and it did not always make me happy. Now, Paul was suggesting, I was free to write my book, my way, at my pace.
When I mentioned this to colleagues who had written several books, their reactions surprised me. I was sure they’d think I was nuts; “what no contact and no advance?” But they too were excited by the prospect of that freedom to get lost, to allow the story to pivot and turn until things became clear. Until I could distill the question at the heart of the book into no more than five words.
I had a vague idea of where I might begin. Jonnie, like me, had a grandfather who had shaped the arc of his family’s story. Perhaps, in working backwards from my visit to Jonnie’s grave, I might use the tales of our very different but equally commanding grandfathers, to make sense of our friendship, of our childhood world in Brooklyn, of, well…so much that was still elusive. I began to read, broadly. It was as if I was taking a survey course: Brooklyn Jewish History 101; 1890 to 1980.
This was fun. I gathered and placed links on all the new Google docs I was opening. I was learning new things. The writing? Months, no make that, years away. No proposal. No second, third and inevitable fourth draft of the proposal.
Of course it had to end.
Having completed the introductory course, it was time to begin selecting what to study next, what reporting and research paths to follow. I felt as if the core, framing question was getting closer. But it still eluded me. Maybe by reading more, I reasoned, I might discover it.
This was a mistake. I began going down rabbit holes: how could I continue, I told myself, until I sorted out how my then 16-year-old grandfather actually made his way from the village of Stratyn to Hamburg in the spring of 1912, and then on to America? Nor could I proceed without having a clear picture in my mind of what Jonnie’s grandfather’s early religious training was like in his village of Skivra?
Weeks passed without answers, and with a growing dread that I was fast losing momentum. And so, I asked my brother, Jim, for advice.
Jim is perhaps America’s pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar. His work has been almost exclusively in historical research, and now after years when whatever archival work I did was matched by reporting, by interviewing, I was in need of advice from someone who knew this terrain.
I was sure he’d say I needed to focus my research on a few, narrow paths, or something along those lines. But he surprised me.
He said, You need to start writing.
Because of course I did.
I knew, because I had said as much to other writers and students, that only by writing could I begin to get my arms around what I had, and begin, too, to make connections that would otherwise escape me because the speed of thinking is infinitely faster than the speed of writing, no matter how many words a minute you can type. I needed to see, on the page, where the story might go. The time had come to write.
I was terrified.
And then, as good luck would have it, a writer I recently gotten to know, Sheena Daree Miller, shared in a Slack channel a piece about writing in Harper's Magazine by the wonderful Ann Patchett. The piece was about how stories come to be, how they might begin one place, and then somehow – miraculously even – they find their way someplace else, only to veer to someplace new and perhaps unexpected. Suffice it to say, Patchett’s story begins with her writing a blurb for a collection of stories by Tom Hanks. It is not how it ends.
Her story was just what I needed, a reminder that I was in uncharted waters, working without the safety net of a proposal, a commitment to the idea I had sold. I was a nonfiction writer finally working with the great but terrifying freedom of a novelist. And now, having done a lot of homework, and with the knowledge that I would surely do more, I needed to do what I thought I could put off.
I started to write.
It did not go badly, nor did it go well.
So I started again and let the story take me in a new direction. Maybe this one will be the right one. Maybe.
I’ll let you know.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.