HOW TO WRITE A BOOK IN TEN EASY YEARS
by Christina Thompson
SOME WEEKS AGO I APPEARED on a panel at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education with two other writers, both of whom I had met before. The first was Rishi Reddi, whose story “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy” turned up in the slushpile at Harvard Review in the spring of 2004. We published it that fall in issue 27, and it was picked up the following year by Best American Short Stories. The story was ultimately collected in Karma and Other Stories, which won the L. L. Winship PEN/New England Award in 2008.
The second person on the panel was Salvatore Scibona, whose first novel The End was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and winner of the 2009 Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library. Salvatore has a day job at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, but I had met him the previous year when we were both teaching creative writing at Harvard Summer School.
Our assignment that night was to talk about the experience of writing books, first books in particular, and what it was like to go from conception to publication. This can be a complex process—for me it certainly was—and so, as the senior member of the panel and, I assumed, the one who had had the most difficulty, I elected to speak first.
The confession I felt I needed to make had to do with the length of time I spent writing Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All. I had written the first piece in 1998, or maybe 1999, and yet the book was not in print until 2008, a full decade in the making. It is true that I have excuses: three children, two jobs, elderly parents, a household, a husband, a dog—in short, plenty of people who have a right to my attention. But in my family no excuse is ever sufficient.
My feeling was always that I hadn’t worked hard enough. I felt I should have been smarter, swifter, cleverer, above all, more disciplined. But there it was. I had been uncertain of what I was doing; I had tried things that didn’t work; I had had long fallow periods when I failed to write anything worth keeping. There had been false starts and dead ends, even into the final stages. Ten years on I did, it was true, have a book to show for all my trouble, but it had been much harder getting there than I’d expected.
Salvatore was sitting to my left and it was his turn to speak next. “Actually,” he said, “my book took ten years to write as well.” He described a long and difficult process, easily as excruciating as mine, during which he wrote what he thought was a novel, discarded most of it, developed the remainder into a second novel, discarded most of that, started again with the fragment, and so on through I don’t know how many iterations, until at the end of 8 or 9 years he had the novel that finally, after another year or so in production, appeared in print.
I laughed. We all laughed. Then it was Rishi’s turn. “Ten years might be underestimating it,” she said. Rishi had another twist on the story. An attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, she had no formal training as a writer and her first forays into the field were made in night classes at a community-based writing center in Boston. At first, she said, she had no idea what she was doing. But she got a little encouragement and she was determined. After a few years she began sending out her stories—with the entirely predictable result: “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy,” the story we published at Harvard Review, had been rejected by 18 other editors.
I don’t think any of us expected the contours of our stories to be so similar. We are very different kinds of writers; we have very different lives; and we had taken very different paths to our appearance on that stage—I came to writing from academia, Salvatore is an MFA man, Rishi a professional lawyer. But we surprised each other, and the audience I think, in the discovery of this common bond. I know I was surprised; I’d gone into the evening convinced that my own writing process had been abnormally protracted. Who knew that it was actually the norm?
So, what’s the takeaway? That a first book has to take ten years? Not necessarily. But maybe it’s not such a tragedy if it does. After all, if Malcolm Gladwell’s right, it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at anything, which, at 2.7 hours a day every day (a lot if you have other commitments), works out to—wait for it—10 years.