Sometimes writing, revising, and attempting publishing is so hard it feels like trying to bend a spoon with your mind. In theory it’s possible, but maybe only for those with superpowers. I’ve written before about the waiting, the self-doubt, the impatience, and the pain of the rejection. All of that is real. This post is not to diminish the difficulties of the writing life.
I went on vacation recently to Nantucket. I’d never been before, and I’d always wanted to go. I love islands, and the ocean, and historic preservation, and Nantucket is a perfect Venn diagram of all of those things. It is also one of the places where the threads of my family tree begin. Years ago, I survived a brief but expensive addiction to Ancestry.com. Go ahead. I dare you to walk away once you start. It turned out that some of my ancestors on my father’s side had settled Nantucket, and begun its whaling industry.
Until the discovery of petroleum in the mid-nineteenth century, whale oil from sperm whales was big business. Whales also produced stays for corsets and ambergris for the manufacture of perfume. It was the oil, though, that sent all the ships out of Nantucket Harbor. It lit houses in lanterns and candles, and lubricated the machinery of the world’s factories.
Sailors on whaling ships signed onto a ship and left home for up to five years. By the early 1800s, whales close by in the Atlantic had been overfished. Ships went further and further from home – to the coasts of South America and as far as Japan. Catching and killing a whale meant riding out in a rowboat with nothing but a harpoon and a long knife and riding the back of a creature much larger than the boat. Once harpooned, the whale would bolt, taking the attached rowboat on a hair-raising out-of-control ride of miles at speeds comparable to a speed boat until the whale was tired. Then they had to use the knife to kill it. Once dead, the whale would be towed miles back to the ship with no more power than four men at the oars, raised on scaffolding on its side, and harvested right then and there. It was nasty, smelly, filthy work of days with no sleep and little to eat.
Once the oil made it to the barrels, the ship would go off, in search of more whales. The men occupied themselves with shipboard tasks, scrimshaw, and letters home. Mail was rare and spotty, and most of the time, the sailors had no idea whether their pregnant wives had given birth, whether their parents had survived another month, or whether their houses had burned down with whole families lost. I’m sure they worried about these things, however.
For those of you who only dimly remember Moby Dick from high school, I recommend reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea for some insight into the history of whaling, and how even something as hard as that can get a thousand times worse. A movie of the latter, starring Chris Hemsworth, is coming out in December.
I came back from Nantucket in awe of the toughness of that life, for the sailors as well as their families, for my own ancestors who survived generations this way. My life, by comparison, is both easy and good. I can write and edit and fret in my warm house, clean and dry. My family is close by. I have as much support as I need.
I’m not saying the writing life isn’t hard. I am saying that sometimes it’s good to go out and get a little perspective. Try it.
Some days are easier than others.
Publishing is all about the waiting. You wait for the words to flow. (They tend to flow best when you’re driving, when your parents are talking to you on the phone, when you’re at work, or when a kid is demanding that you come and examine what he has built from Legos.)
You wait for responses from agents or small publishers on your queries. Sometimes this wait is minutes, more often weeks, but sometimes it takes much, much longer. No joke, I got a rejection in May 2015 for a query I sent in January of 2014. I had high hopes for that one, too.
If you’re lucky enough to be agented, you wait for responses from editors and updates from your agent, who is swamped and busy and trying to carve out approximately fifteen minutes of personal life per week, but is still probably 2000 queries behind.
If you get a book deal, you wait for the cover, for the blurb, for the new title, for the publication date, for the readers to find you. Then you wait to find out if you have another book deal.
It goes on and on. I’m both terrible at waiting and great at it. On the days when I show a real talent for waiting, I’m Zen. No eastern philosopher can spout more platitudes than I can on those days. I read—both published books and my friends’ manuscripts. I scroll through Twitter. I play touch football and go hiking. I cook and I enjoy it. I even examine the Lego creations with real non-faked interest.
During those days, the Zen days, I’m a delightful companion. I’m fun Mom. I’m loving Wife. I can say heartfelt supportive things to my fellow residents of Waitingville. I can write long stretches of my work in progress and read them and think they are wonderful.
It’s the other days that are not so good. The ones where I. Can’t. Stand. It. Another. Minute. The ones where I feel like storming the castle and demanding answers, in shouty caps with lots of exclamation points. Those days my kids know that I’ll let them watch way too much TV. My husband, with whom I go for a walk every evening, decides to go for a solo run instead. I eat too much and none of it is healthy. My online friends manufacture all kinds of refreshing outings in dark caves with no internet after they’ve tried fruitlessly to remind me that I signed on for this, that I knew what I was getting into when I first decided to pursue traditional publishing.
Fortunately for me, the Zen days outnumber the Not-Zen days. Just know, though, that when you have the Not-Zen day—and you will, if you’re trying to be published—you’re hardly alone.
LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, coming Jan. 15, 2019. Buy it by clicking below!