On (Attempted) Writing

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last week, I started reading Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi. And, jeepers creepers.

This is by far the best sports bio I’ve ever read. Andre’s story is incredible, better than fiction. (The man hates tennis with a passion, always has. The reason he wound up doing it is heartbreaking.)

To write his story, Andre had the good sense to employ the Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, the writer’s own exquisite memoir. According to the end-notes of Open, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas so he could work on the book full-time, meeting with Andre every day (for hours.) He also employed a research assistant and a fact-checker.

And it still took him two years to write the book.

This is the norm: the best and most successful authors pour thousands of hours into their projects. Laura Hillenbrand, author of the fantastically good (and wildly popular) Unbroken, which is still atop the hardcover bestseller lists more than a year after it was published, went nine years between her only two books – and she writes full-time, has no children, and, due to a chronic physical condition, rarely leaves her house. According to his memoir My Reading Life, Pat Conroy used to leave his small children for months at a time; he’d move to foreign countries to write in solitude. Even Stephen King, one of the most experienced and prolific writers in America, can spend a few years working full-time on a single novel.

There’s a huge difference between mediocre writing and great writing – it’s the difference between grade-school basketball and the NBA – and much of the reason can be found in the time invested. Most great writers produce thousands of words for every hundred they keep.

Like Moehringer, I am also working on a book. Unlike Moehringer, I have no assistants. What I do have is a separate, more-than-full-time job: mothering two small boys.

The story I’m working on, my grandmother’s memoir, involves events that happened 100 years ago, and requires a tremendous amount of research. For instance, the other morning I scribbled out this simple sentence:

In April of 1911, as shipbuilders in Belfast were preparing to launch the massive hull of a celebrated new vessel named the RMS Titanic, another, smaller ship pushed through the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

That sentence may or may not even survive in any form, but it spawned at least three research-intensive questions.

  1. Was great-grandpa indeed onboard the Saint Louis in April of 1911? In poring over original ship’s manifest, there is a Bouche de Jong on board that vessel – the only name/age/spouse match I could find for that year, although Grandpa’s name was Bernard, known sometimes as Ben. Have to verify.
  2. Was the Titanic indeed already being celebrated a year before it launched, or did its fame come later? Verify.
  3. Was the Saint Louis smaller than the Titanic? I’m assuming it was, but I have to double-check the specs of both ships. Verify.

Almost every sentence I write produces questions. What was the temperature in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on June 29, 1913? What were the interior walls of 1911 houses made of? How long did it take to travel by train from New York to South Dakota? What was the rate of population growth in San Clemente, CA from 1970 to 2006?

All of this before I can even start the massive work of really writing, shaping and editing.

A blogger buddy (whom I otherwise adore) recently posted that he wished he had a job that gave him more time to write  – “like being a stay-at-home mom” (his words). Once I finished alternately laughing and banging my head against the wall, I decided that that wild misconception deserves its own blog post. Another time, perhaps.

I can assure you, it’s impossible for me to write when my boys are conscious. So I’ve been getting up early in the morning, before my husband goes to work, and trying to get in a solid hour of work before the boys get up (many mornings, of course, they wander out of their rooms early and smash this plan to smithereens.) I spend the rest of each day trying very hard to be “present” with them, and not lost in thought, constructing sentences or scribbling down ideas or research questions. And then on the weekends, in between house cleaning and basketball games and errands, I pack up and go to the library for a couple of hours of uninterrupted work.

On the bright side, we don’t really have to wonder if Grandma’s story can get published, after all the recent media attention – at least one major publisher has already expressed interest in it. Also, we have the most fabulous back-up plan, should I hit a complete wall with the whole thing: a world-class writer is interested in writing this book, although they can’t talk about anything until July. (Seriously, this person is hot stuff. It’s nice when your back-up plan is even better than your original plan.)

So I have until July to make the best “go” of this I can, in the little pockets of time I can carve out for it. At times I feel incredibly foolish – trying to accomplish, in a few hours a week, what it takes seasoned writers years to do.

At any rate, this blog will be a little neglected for the next few months. Say a prayer for me, if you will. This is an awesome, huge project; an exciting project. It’s going to be great “practice” for me, whatever comes of it.

To quote another writer, I’ll do what I can. I’ll give what I have.

And Lord, we’ll see what happens.

Oh, and if you like great writing and/or sports and/or traumatic stories, pick up a copy of Open. It’s insanely good.


20 thoughts on “On (Attempted) Writing

  1. If you need limited help that involves math or statistics I can help! I am volunteering some of Larry’s Mafia War and Farming time too! LOL 🙂

  2. Love your title for this post! Time to fill in that gap between attempted and actual, right? I’m so glad that you’re making a go of this, and I will definitely throw up a prayer here and there on your behalf.

    I’ll try to avoid throwing out cliche phrases that point out that the end product/journey will make the hard work worthwhile (yada yada yada, right?) but the truth is, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did this when you’re done. Just the comment you left last week about reading the hand written pages of notes from your grandma — this is going to be good and the impact far reaching.

    As far as the stay at home mom thing goes, it will get a bit easier as they get older. I just walked in the door at home (Valerie is off at a bball game) and found the TV on downstairs with no one watching and all three boys off in their own rooms working on school or other projects, unsupervised. (Yes, miracles do happen.)

    Granted, it’ll be about 9 years before your boys are the same age as my younger ones, so that doesn’t help with this project, but the day is coming when they won’t demand quite as much of your time.

    • Thank you for your steadfast support and pushiness. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in an acknowledgement’s page someday.

      I know I’m in the home stretch with this full-time gig. That knowledge helps. 🙂

  3. “Almost every sentence I write produces questions.”

    Fly-by readers sometimes aren’t aware of the work that goes into research-heavy books — historic ones or otherwise. But not even that…if you’re writing plain fiction the writer not only has to have a “bed of facts” about things like basic geography or politics, they also have to be cognizant of different personalities and likelihoods of behavior and reactions. It’s not easy to enter someone’s else’s lifestyle and adopt their ways of thinking to accurately commit them to paper (or screen).

    In short, I agree with you =)

    • And I agree with YOU!

      Great writing sometimes looks easy…but, as with so many things that “look” easy, that is a complete illusion. I love reading books or articles by my favorite authors, where they talk about how much blood they sweat over their work….how much stuff they end up tossing.

      We’re not alone!

  4. Cathy, I will definitely be praying for you and will be waiting expectantly to read whatever amazing work you put out there. I love reading what you write. Maybe it is because I know you personally, but more likely it’s because you are great at expressing yourself through the written word, I always feel like I can actually see and hear you say what you write. As a mom of 3 daughters, two of whom are still quite young, I can understand what you go through to get any writing accomplished. Heck, cleaning my bathrooms on a regular basis requires a tremendous amount of planning.

    • It is a very good day, indeed, when my bathrooms sparkle! That usually only happens on the weekends…if Dan takes the boys somewhere…

      Thanks for your sweet words and support. I can only even attempt this because of all the people who hold my arms up when I get tired!

  5. Cathy – I’ll definitely pray for you, of course! So excited for you to be doing this – can’t wait to read it! Oh and I also can’t wait to read the copy of that other book you’re still going to send me! 😉

  6. There is no thing you set your mind to accomplishing that you cannot do. I mean that! This will be great! And come on, you know you love every thing about this: the questions, the research, the writing and rewriting and editing and re-editing (ok maybe not the re-editing so much). This is your dream. Go for it. We’ll pray you through.
    Oh and for the record, God wants this story written too, so there’s that in your favor. 🙂

    • You’re right! I believe that and hold to it.

      And yes…the research stuff is more fun than Disneyland. I was doing some of it this morning, and acting like a kid in a candy shop. 🙂

  7. Cathy, I have two favorite New Yorker cartoons. The first: Man sits in his skivvies on an exam table. Doctor looks at x-ray which shows hundreds of letters (like alphabet soup) afloat inside the man’s torso. The caption: “Bob, that book inside you has to come out.”

    The second: A desert…miles of sand with two stone cubes, one larger than the other. Carved into the larger cube, the word “LESS”. Carved into the smaller: “MORE”.

    You, with your inquisitive mind and your loving, capacious heart, are a storyteller. The book – nay, books – in you have to come out. A circuitous path, perhaps, but along the way you’ll encounter more stories. Which you will write, check, re-check, edit. I recently tackled a stack of papers, began editing, and ended up with a haiku….all that work for one concise sentence. Less is more.

    At sixty, I do not regret my five a.m. journaling before six a.m. feedings. Writing is how I sort. When I am out-of-sorts, I write more…and read. But writing can take a toll on our bodies. I tell this next part for a reason. Bear with me, please. I know you already have a perfectly good mother. Six years ago, I was bed-ridden for long periods with persistent, nauseating vertigo, pain, and an annoying tendency to black out. A year, a lot of tests, and even more money went by before I got a diagnosis. Which put a name on the situation but did nothing to address the symptoms. My husband of six months and three weeks, who has a doctorate in physical therapy and – more importantly – a passion for his calling, recognized the source of the problems: my neck and back. Years of sitting in front a computer or curled up in chairs, reading, had played havoc on my spine. Since he began treating me, I now stand one inch taller (what every 5’9″ girls wants). But he says it’s just another inch to love. Is he wonderful or what? Better yet, I have learned to feel tension in my body and counteract it. I am learning to walk correctly. And how to sit (seldom, without my legs crossed). I sometimes dictate so that I can use my “computer time” editing. I work at a tall table on a bar stool that encourages better alignment of the hips and back. Or stand. Correctly. I stretch, hike, listen to my body and treat it with greater respect. [I just re-read this paragraph. The facts are correct. But the telling is oh-so-much-more graceful than my bull-headed, recidivist ways.]

    A favorite Madeleine L’Engle quote comes to mind: “She seems to have had the ability to stand firmly on the rock of her past while living completely and unregretfully in the present.” You have Minka’s genes. Often what will later become the past seems “rocky” – anything BUT a firm foundation – as the days unravel. Sometimes literally. This is where faith enters, the intersection of “My Plans” and “Oh, Yeah?” Play with those boys and take care of yourself. Write and read. Your readers are waiting. And praying. For as long as it takes.

    Enjoy the journey, Cathy.

    • Dear Celeste…you always know just what to say. I value your words so much (and, of course, I adore your writing! And love when you produce some just for me!)

      You’re tall, too! I am 5’10”. Which is fine now, but wasn’t so fun when I was in junior high! 🙂

      I am already 41, so I have to be careful with my back, or my sciatic acts up! I think I have a good chair. I HOPE I do.

      Thank you for your faithful support. I appreciate it more than I can say. XO

  8. OK, you better take good notes, you have to do another memoir in four years for your other grandma. Then in 29 years do one on me. Speaking of your dad, go to (youtube Kristy Scott Contest Raw Benches 281 pounds, DeRousie) I am the 3rd lifter out of the 5 featured. I set a new U.S.A. record and won most outstanding lifter award over everyone including these in this youtube. Also people are going to (onlyatgbg.com/jerryhuhn) and ordering the 10-in-One Super Formula chewable vitamins. Thirty day supply for only $39.97+s/h the same one I am taking that has helped me win most outstanding lifter in the last three meets. dad

  9. Heya Miss Cathy, miss you since the close of All The Church Ladies. I hopped over from Kathy’s… seems we share a disdain for a certain children’s book. Or is it a mother’s book?

    Anyway, I love this whole bit, especially the parts on writing with boys around. I know this. I live this too.

    By the way, we lived in 1910 house for a few years… I had the same question so we found a way to take a peak… solid lap & plaster, no insulation, and of course no drywall.

    Blessings. (sorry this is so scattered)

    • Miss Darlene…I miss you too! Always happy when you pop up in my feed. (Can’t remember if we’re FB friends? I’ll try to look you up.)

      Thank you for the tips on the walls! Now I must research lap & plaster… 🙂

      I don’t mind scattered. I am perpetually scattered, since having children…

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