Friday, June 01, 2007

Publication Blues

My contributor's copies of Shelter arrived yesterday. It looks good, and the production people missed only two of the galley corrections I made (and not the most important ones, either). The book I've been laboring over since fracking 1988 is finally out in the world.

So I should be happy. Right? Right?

But I feel blue instead. I think there's a writer's equivalent of postpartum depression, especially for books with as long and agonizing a gestation as this one's had. For years now, I've been fretting about getting it born: now that it's born, I have to go through that butterflies-in-the-stomach anxiety of seeing how people are going to react to the poor little thing, whose misshapen bits I can see all too clearly. (There are writers who say they don't care about reviews, but I don't believe them.) A few months ago, I told Jacob Weisman that having a book published is like having pieces of your body spread through the world, where you can't protect them, and where anybody can come along and stomp on them. He thought that was a horrifying analogy, but sometimes, that's really what it feels like.

Having a new book out is a very vulnerable time. Have I let my child down? Have I given it what it needs? Will it be able to survive out there?

And will it embarrass its mother in public?

There's also the odd matter of having realized, yesterday or the day before, that the novel deals metaphorically with one aspect of my own family history. In 1964, when I was three years old and just before my mother got sober for good (you can read more about that story, which I have her permission to tell, here), one of the doctors at the state hospital where my father had committed her told Dad that she was a hopeless case and that she'd probably have to be lobotomized.

They were still doing lobotomies then. For more information on this grim chapter in mental-health treatment, see this article; the sidebar links are very informative, too.

My father, thank God, was horrified by the idea and refused to consider it. But I've always been haunted by the fact that it even could have happened, and by wondering what our lives would have been like if it had happened. Shelter is, among other things, about a mother who's frantically trying to keep her disturbed child from having a procedure that will erase his identity, a procedure that has turned other people in the book into shambling wrecks.

Of course, the connection is obvious. But I didn't see it until two days ago. And I'm sure readers will point out other things I've been unaware of, which is yet another unnerving aspect of having a book out in the world.

This kind of reprocessing-of-obsessions is what writers do, whether they intend to or not. I've had similar realizations about lots of earlier work, so it shouldn't surprise me that I've had one this time, too. But it's a little humbling to have been working on something for almost twenty years and to realize that you still don't know, haven't seen, everything there is to know about it.

Meanwhile, I now, for the first time since I turned in this manuscript in 2001, have nothing forthcoming, which means -- according to my own internal definition of Writerhood -- that I'm not a writer at the moment. Which means I need to write.

There's nothing that will produce writer's block in me more quickly than feeling as if I have to write. This is one reason Shelter took so long; I'll never write a novel under contract again. Oh, I have plenty of things to work on: the remaining five ED sonnets, a huge messy tottering first draft of another novel, the one I've promised myself I'll return to this summer, some short stories.

But I feel absolutely empty right now. I know that if I make myself do a little bit every day, I'll get back into the swing of things. And I've cleared my schedule this summer so that I'll indeed be able to work most days. I've promised to devote myself to writing and class prep this summer. I know I can do that; I've done it before. But right now, it's scary.

Oh, and then there's the problem of my study being a tottering pile of lots of stuff, most of which I need to throw away; I feel as if I need to clear surfaces before I start work, but clearing surfaces is work in itself, and work I hate.

I'm also moving offices at work, which means lots of organizing and throwing away and packing there, too.

Yes, I know: everyone should have these problems!


  1. Congratulations on the new baby!

    Never having had a book go to print (I've only published one single solitary paper), I don't think I understand the impact. But I do remember the anxiety around having every detail be just so.

    I hope that you transition from depression toward sending your offspring out into the world a la an empty nester and enjoy its flight into the hearts and minds of the readers!

    I'm happy for you, Susan!

  2. I just read the homily you linked to and found it very moving. God bless you, Susan. I've read your books and found them very moving as well. Keep writing, both here and professionally.

  3. Thank you both, very much.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.