Wednesday Write #52: Coming Out Of My Writer’s Cave
Note to Brilliant readers: One year from now, my book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter will be published. Each Wednesday between now and then I’ll be posting here on my blog about the writing and publishing process—a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the journey of a book from manuscript to publication. I’ve labeled this first post number 52 because I’ll be counting down each week from 52 to (gulp) 0, Pub Day. As the manuscript of Brilliant becomes a book, I’d like to take you along—and I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we go.—Annie
Brilliant is my third book, but it’s the first one I’ve written in public.
As I wrote my first book (The Cult of Personality, a cultural history and scientific critique of personality testing) and my second book (Origins, an exploration of the science of prenatal influences), I didn’t show much of my works-in-progress to others. When I say “much” I really mean this: I shared barely a single word or idea with anyone other than my editor, until all those words and ideas were actually sitting on a shelf in the bookstore. Because of a combination of perfectionism, insecurity and techno-ignorance, I felt more comfortable isolating myself in what I came to think of as my writer’s cave, hiding away until I was absolutely ready to come out.
There were some upsides to my authorial hoarding. It enabled a complete, almost monk-like immersion in the activity of writing. It protected me from criticism that might have quashed some still-emerging, still-delicate idea. And it gave me a sense of control over a process that, as a first-time author (and even as a second-time author), frankly scared me to death.
But there were some major downsides, too, which I began to recognize as soon as my books were published. People would come up to me after a reading or signing and say, “That chapter reminded me of an interesting study I once read that found . . . ” or, “Have you run across the work of . . . ?” or even, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why.” All these contributions and challenges, I realized, would have greatly enriched my writing—but by then it was too late.
So when I started working on Brilliant three years ago, I resolved to do things differently. Between 2002, when I signed the contract for my first book, and 2010, when I signed on to write Brilliant, many new channels for interacting with readers had come online. The problem was, I didn’t know how to use them—not even the most basic ones. I didn’t have a blog; I didn’t have a Twitter handle; I didn’t even have (believe it or not) a Facebook account. All I had was one of those sad, static “author websites,” the kind that no one, even the author herself, ever visits.
I faced a steep learning curve. I was helped on the climb by writer friends who’d already begun inviting readers into the process of creating their books. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier At Home, was a particular inspiration. I loved the way she shared, so openly and with genuine enthusiasm, the latest thing she’d read or thought about. Her approach should reassure those writers (I was one) who fear that reaching out to readers will come off as self-promotion. Gretchen’s posts aren’t advertisements; they’re acts of generosity.
I often hear two other objections from writers about sharing a book-in-progress with readers. The first is that you’re effectively scooping yourself, giving away your best material for free. Better to keep all those ideas and insights to yourself, lest readers get tired of you before your book even comes out. This worry seems to me unwarranted. The more writers share of their work (presuming the work is good), the more of it we readers want to see.
The second objection is that all that blogging, Tweeting, Facebook posting and public speaking takes time, time that could be devoted to writing. I can’t argue with that one. Participating in the public conversation does take time—but it is, in my view, indisputably time well spent. My readers have helped me refine my ideas, rethink my assumptions, tighten up my prose and take more care with my characterizations. And isn’t having a voice in debates that matter the reason why writers write in the first place? It’s just that the book is no longer the only forum for writers’ voices anymore. The book’s singular status has changed; now we can interact with readers in so many more fluid and dynamic ways.
The expectations readers hold of writers have changed, too. Readers want to know what their favorite writers are reading and thinking about; they want to question, challenge, and correct writers; they want to offer writers their support and encouragement. It’s that last part that has surprised me the most, and made me grateful I took the plunge. Every day—every day—I get emails from readers telling me that what I’m writing about interests them, matters to them, has made them think or act in a different way.
These kinds of messages are a lifeline to a writer working on a long-term project—a regular reminder of why I’m working, what it’s all for. I remember one day in particular, one of those awful days in the life of a writer when nothing is coming together and the whole project seems hopeless. My email program dinged, and eager for a distraction from my despair, I opened the new message. Some clairvoyant reader had written me a note that was just a few words long: “Keep going. You’re on to something.”
I did keep going, and the project did come together, and I give that reader—all my readers—a lot of the credit. Much editing, fact-checking, and proofreading still lie ahead. But in this post, the first step on a long trip, I want to send a brief message of my own to the readers who have made writing a book so much more interesting, stimulating, and fun this time around: thank you, thank you, thank you.