Facing the Post-Publication Fear: Will I Be Able to Do This Again?

February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments

thresholdBy L. Roger Owens

Opening the box of ten free author copies, then holding the book, feeling the weight of its 70,000 words, of it 186 pages, being surprised by my name on the front cover, which I knew would be there, and by my photograph on the back, which I didn’t—it all feels like a miracle. Where did you come from?

The sense of the miraculous deepens as I reread words I wrote. I know these words slid out of my mind, down my arm, and slipped from the tip of my pen onto the page. But I don’t remember how the words got into my mind—this turn of phrase, this rambling sentence, this metaphor—even though the name on the cover should be proof enough that I conjured them.

That is, I feel alienated from the spiritual memoir I wrote. I struggle to imagine how it came to be, which invites a sense of dread: If I can’t conceive how it is that I wrote this book, then isn’t it possible that I won’t be able to write another?

If its birth was a miracle, what guarantees it can happen again?

In the face of this fear, there’s only one choice—attend to reality, force myself to recall some of the signposts on the journey from idea to book, signposts that remind me it wasn’t just a felicitous conjoining of miracle and serendipity that produced this book. Agency and intention were at work as well—mine.

I let an idea stick. That was a choice. I have lots of ideas, and they flutter away as fast as they appear. But I let this idea stick. I wrote it down the evening I had it. I explored it the next day in my morning pages. I turned the seed of an idea into sentences and paragraphs and pages. These were acts over which I had some control. Certainly, I can again let an idea with energy linger, show it some hospitality, nurture it.

That part wasn’t luck.

I sent up test balloons. When the book arrives in a box on your doorstep, it gives the impression it simply appeared fully formed, Athena from Zeus’s head. But my investigation of reality tells me that’s not true. I wrote shorter pieces along the way. I let other people read them (I received invaluable feedback from a group of writers at the Collegeville Institute). I submitted a portion of the book as an essay to the journal Rock & Sling, which published it. In each case, these test balloons were greeted with encouraging feedback that helped me improve the writing and beckoned me to keep at it.

Holding portions of the work to the light of day wasn’t a fluke. It’s something I can do again.

I continued to hone my craft. I didn’t begin the book knowing how to write it. I’d never written a book like this before. The form was new to me—forty short chapters, each a kind of personal essay, but which together needed to maintain a narrative arc. I had much to learn. So I took an online course through the journal Creative Nonfiction called “Spiritual Writing” while I was midway through badlands of writing the book. The assigned readings inspired and challenged me (Could I attempt the kind of density of description characteristic of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work? I wondered). The feedback from the instructor showed me that I needed to prioritize the reader’s experience and taught me how.

It eases my mind to know that, when I begin my next project, I don’t need to have it figured out before I start. I can learn as I go.

I kept my hand moving. This is what I learned from Natalie Goldberg in the first creative writing course I took twenty-one years ago, her most important rule for writing—keep the hand moving. From my first notes, scribbled in orange ink in a Moleskin journal on November 27, 2015—“But I had another good idea today …”—to final revisions sent to my editor three years later, I kept the tip of the pen scratching across the page. That was the only way those 70,000 words showed up (along with the 10,000 that didn’t make the cut).

If I was the one moving the pen, then it can happen again.

Other ingredients went into creating the book as well: chats with my wife and children, feedback from friends, a sanity-saving conversation with my English professor brother as I despaired over editorial changes.

Along with, no doubt, a dash of miracle and a pinch of luck.

But mostly choices I made and can make again—like getting my butt in a chair, a pen in my hand, and words on a page.

Roger Owens is the author of the spiritual memoir Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife, along with three other books. He teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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