“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.
- 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.
- Was the Titanic indeed already being celebrated a year before it launched, or did its fame come later? Verify.
- 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.