Recently Stephen King wrote an essay for The New York Times in defense of prolific writers. For every Barbara Cartwright, whose 700 books argue that quantity is inversely related to quality, he cited an Agatha Christe (91 books) and an Isaac Asimov (500+) whose body of work begs to differ. Some writers, he explained, simply have so many stories in their heads that they can’t help writing a lot of books. Writers like himself, cursed with “a thousand ideas, but only 10 fingers and one typewriter.”
Poor guy. With a mind like that, it’s a wonder he’s only managed to write 55.
If I sound a little defensive, it’s because am. After all, I’ve only written one novel, and that one took me six years. I’m no Marilynne Robinson or Jonathan Franzen, either, who spend a decade writing Pulitzer Prize winners. I simply don’t have a lot of ideas. Even the one I’ve had — the one that became Once We Were Light — had to be practically beaten out of me.
It started when a friend invited me to join her writer’s group. I’d talked about writing a novel forever, so it seemed like a great opportunity to finally start one. But for six months I contributed nothing to that group but critiques of the other women’s work. I didn’t even bring the muffins when it was my turn to bring the muffins. I was, quite possibly, the worst writer’s group member ever. At home I stared at my computer in despair. What was wrong with me? The other writers had stories practically falling out of their pockets — blogs, short stories, essays, novels, memoirs, even poems. Not me. Maybe, I thought, I just didn’t have the creative spark required to write a novel.
Eventually the writer’s group had had enough. They told me to go away and not come back without ten written pages. And muffins.
Well. I don’t know where Stephen King’s thousand ideas come from, but for me, that was what did it. Two days before the next meeting I sat at the computer and told myself to write something. Anything. And, to my amazement, a scene slid out of my fingers like butter from a hot pan. In it, a woman stood on a dock with two girls, waiting for a school bus to drive across a frozen lake. It was totally made up. It was fiction. I was elated: I could do it, after all. Apparently, all I’d ever needed was a deadline.
It was terrible, of course. In fact, six years later, I’m still not a good enough writer to describe the subterranean levels of terrible those pages plumbed. But there was a story in there. How did the woman get to that frozen lake? What did she want? As I told her story, another emerged, the story of the great-aunt who’d left her the lake house. Through these women I began to explore themes that have always mattered to me. The complicated bonds between mothers, daughters, and sisters, enriched by loyalty but fraught with rivalry and sometimes the cruelest of betrayals. The way our family legacies shape our lives. Most of all, how (and whether) women find the power to save themselves. Years passed. My children grew from elementary schoolers to high schoolers. The cat got old and died. Then, when I couldn’t make the book any better, I sent it to New York, where it got me my wonderful agent, Michelle Brower.
Along the way, I learned that how I created this book was not so unusual after all. Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light We Cannot See from a single scene, where a young German soldier, trapped beneath rubble, turns on a shortwave radio and hears something that changes his life. It took Doerr ten years to tell the story that scene begat. One of my teachers, the brilliant Alice Mattison, spun her book Nothing Is Quite Forgotten In Brooklyn out of a scene in which four women sit in bathroom stalls at the opera, and one of them has an epiphany. It took her years, too.
Of course, there are many writers with the fertile imagination of Stephen King. But it’s comforting to know that there are also plenty of writers like me, who glom onto one rare and fleeting idea and, through sheer doggedness, delve into as many of its nuances as we can until we manage to wrangle a novel out of it. As King said, all writers work at different speeds, all of us have different sources of inspiration, and “in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out.”
Okay, so that’s kind of depressing. But it also gives me a strange sort of hope. Because for six years, I wrote one book. I wrote it as well as I could, which is better than when I started, but not nearly as well as I would like. Soon I’m going to write another. I will sit at the computer, and I will write a scene from a new story. One that will be told all in its own time, and all by itself.
All I need is a deadline.
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