Here’s What I Learned About Writing A Book — By Writing A Fucking Book

When I embarked on this journey a little over a year ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. I’d never written a book before — unless you count a 150k fanfic, but I know the vast majority of you DON’T.

(So like, first of all: fuck you. And second of all, I’ll sing the praises of fanfiction later — so stay-YOUR-ASS-tuned.)

Now, just because the first draft is done and has been sent off to the publisher doesn’t mean the work is done. I’m sure at least 10k words of it will be cut, there’s indexing and name-changing to do, and I AM CERTAIN, a heap of adverb-gutting required.

But the manuscript is there — it exists, with a purpose, and now it’s just a matter of refinement. Of which, I have remarkably little — but no one cares about the author, not really. I think the most vital realization I’ve had is that this book isn’t mine. I mean, it’s my intellectual property I guess, but it exists only for the benefit of people who aren’t . . .me.

It’s not a book for me to read, even. I tried to write the book I needed to read five, ten, fifteen years ago. That being said, the process of writing the book was at times very cathartic for me. There were aspects I enjoyed.

There were also plenty that I loathed. I think that surprised me more than anything else: I hadn’t expected to hate writing a book. But at times, I did, and I’m sure that I’ll hate every book I write at some point.

I eventually realized that those moments when I really despised the book was a sign of something else: I was working on a difficult passage and felt inconvenienced by the emotions it brought up, I was frustrated because I caught myself being repetitive — which reminded me of my current health struggles which have manifested intellectually in ways I can’t always control.

There were times when I just became BORED with the book, the process, and myself — to, uh, quote Dickens:

It’s from Bleak House, ya plebes!

There were also periods throughout the last six months of writing where I felt that the book didn’t matter. That nothing I could produce mattered.

The world into which I had pitched the book initially did not exist anymore. I began to view the book as self-indulgent naval-gazing, as something that no one else could possibly care about. Even as I was continuously reminded that there were plenty of people who were seeking to have their experiences validated — and my book could certainly do that — I constantly questioned if I was the right person to tell the story.

If it was even a story at all.

The other thing I realized almost immediately upon setting out to write was that my life — all lives — are incredibly complex. In reality, they feature an ever-rotating cast of characters, all of whom are also remarkably layered in their own right. I craved an objectivity that cannot inherently exist when you’re talking about your own life. I wanted to write about myself with the observational prowess with which I’d write about someone else. In doing that, I fell into a trap of simply telling — mostly because I was reluctant to really embody, perhaps for the first time in my life, the weight of my own existence.

Not just the times in which I suffered, but the occasions on which I felt immeasurable joy. I was afraid to really explore my own capacity, as a human being, to truly feel anything at all.

Inherent to writing memoir, I was also confronted by the need to write about myself as I was years ago, not just as I am in the present. In fact, the latter I did but rarely. Viewing my own evolution was at best, embarassing.

This picture of me appeared in a local newspaper when I was four or five for ARBOR DAY of all things.

It also proved challenging because I by no means possess a consistent or static personality: even in just the last year I’ve changed. To the point where I rewrote passages of the book in the zero hour to reflect how my perspective had shifted, or to construct a more appropriate tone.

I no longer write the way I did before I wrote the book.

That being said, this wasn’t altogether because writing a book changed how I wrote: it’s more that writing a book made me more interested in how I write. My process, I guess.

There are many pieces in the book that did not come to me as I was sitting down to work on it. I wrote a plethora of other things this year that went unpublished and were purely for the purpose of exploring process. Much of it was also, frankly, just for FUCKING fun. Writing a book was many things, but it was hardly ever fun.

I wrote half a screenplay, some vignettes that may turn into a novel (no they won’t, lol), and a great deal of fanfiction, which took so much pressure off me to construct entire universes, and instead, let me work on developing certain areas instead. I have no shame in admitting that I have consistently used fanfiction as a means to hone in on particular element — dialogue, setting, pacing — and exercise my skills thusly. Truth be told, I’ve had more helpful feedback from fanfic readers in the last fifteen years than I have from many professional writers and editors. This doesn’t surprise me in the least when I accept that we don’t write books for our editors, or our agents, or even other writers. We write for readers, and when they are engaged and sharing with us, that’s the most valuable form of critique we can ever hope to receive.

Of course, none of those projects ended up as anything of substance on their own— but through writing them, I found ways to say things in the book that I had not been able to figure out otherwise.

There were points at which not writing the book produced more of the book than actually writing the book did. If that makes sense.

I also wrote the vast majority of the narrative portions while I was driving — usually to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love album. These zen-like times where I drove aimlessly, and often for an hour or more at a stretch, proved vital to accessing not just my memories, but the emotions associated with them. I felt more at ease doing that in the car winding through back roads, alone on a summer evening than I did anywhere else.

Writing this book also forced me to reconcile that there’s a difference between telling yourself you don’t care about things in your past anymore, and truly reaching a point where you’re unaffected by them. Reliving some of those challenges made me realize that in order to overcome them, I compartmentalized my emotions — which wasn’t a bad coping strategy, and it served me. The problem was, I never unpacked them.

Unpacking them to write the book felt dangerous, because I didn’t want those passages to take on the tone of “misery memoir.” Talking about the difficult things that happened to me as a child was required in order to put decisions I made later — which ultimately had legal and healthcare-related ramifications — into the necessary context. To get to the context, and the facts, I needed to acknowledge the emotions. I’m not sure yet if that work is ever truly done, but there are certainly those who never start it. And I did not want to be in that league.

As far as the book itself goes, I don’t know if it’s even a good book. I don’t know if it’s a book that will matter, or Do Well, or make me bank, or help anyone at all. It may be that it’s none of those things — but it’s still a book.

Having produced something that will exist as a tangible extension of me is an overwhelming feeling. It’s slightly terrifying, because with that comes a certain kind of inescapable representation (but hey, so does every stupid thing I’ve posted on the internet since I was 14). But still, I am aware that it will outlive me. That there is something of me, that came from me, that can be in people’s lives even when I no longer am.

It’s not quite a legacy, but it’s something. And having something to offer the world right now feels a hell of a lot better than having nothing.


Abby Norman is a writer, probably. She’s currently working on a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, The Independent, Quartz, Bustle and others. She lives in New England with her dog, Whimsy, and wishes Gilda Radner would haunt her apartment. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in New York City.

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