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I have just completed a draft of my next book, though completed feels like a questionable verb when I mostly see its flaws at this point. It’s probably longer than it needs to be. I’m afraid to search the document for words I overuse. There are several scenes that I generously think of as “placeholders.” This week, I got stuck in a rut of revising and re-revising the first chapter, much like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (I know it’s “Cause and Effect,” fellow nerds) where the crew is stuck in a time loop and forced to relive the same day over and over again. If I were editing this book, I would be tempted to Select All and leave a single note in the margin: All of this, but make it GOOD. Much as I would love to continue opening up the file every morning so that I can change approximately five (5) words per one (1) cup of coffee, it’s time to step away and wait for editorial feedback.
Before I began this project, two and a half years and several eons ago, wise friends tried to tell me about the Second-Book Problem, by which they just meant that it’s really damn hard to write your second book. You’d think it would be easier—you know what you’re getting into, and you can always remind yourself that you’ve done it before. I suppose it would help if I could actually remember writing my first book, but for some reason I’m able to recall the experience only in fragmented scenes, flashes of emotion, similar to how I remember kindergarten, or nightmares, or labor and childbirth. I know that I wrote it mostly in the evenings and on weekends; I can picture myself working at the standing desk I used to wheel around the living room, following the good light, while my children were on their eighty billionth viewing of Frozen; I remember my spouse leaving a sandwich and a water bottle next to my laptop before taking the kids out of the house on many a Saturday morning so that I could have uninterrupted writing time. There was also a dream in which I called my editor and told her in painstaking detail about my plan to tear apart and rewrite the first half of the book—a strange way for my brain to land on a solution to the structural problem I’d been stressing over (what if I’d forgotten the idea upon waking?), if not quite as strange as the IRL call I had to make after I woke up:
Editor: So you had a dream, and now you want me to stop working on the draft you sent?
Me: That’s right.
Editor: The draft that I’m already one-third of the way through?
Me: Yes! In my dream, you were very understanding about this.
By far the clearest memory I have from that entire writing process is the cold winter afternoon four years ago when I finished the manuscript, working in my pajamas all day at our tiny kitchen table. My father had died two days prior, and I knew that I would soon be overwhelmed by grief. I was afraid I’d never finish if I allowed myself a pause, so I walled off every feeling, every corner of my brain that wasn’t occupied by the book, and pushed through my final revisions. It was only possible because I was still in shock.
Everyone says that there’s no moving on from deep loss—you can only move forward, incorporating it into your life and recognizing how it has changed you. The steady accumulation of grief over the last four years has done more than level me at times, hollow me out; it has altered my perspective and my priorities, one shock at a time. And it has forced me to grapple with what I long expected of myself, especially when it comes to my work. There were so many days—not only leading up to the publication of my first book, though it was most noticeable to me then—when I know I treated myself like a tool or an appliance rather than a human being. The more I did this, the more I felt I had to do, and the harder it was to admit that I was struggling.
If finishing and publishing the first book meant powering through my first major loss, tackling the second has required another kind of grit. I know that it’s a profound privilege to be able to think about this at all, and that I’m fortunate to collaborate and work with people who genuinely care about my well-being. But it’s still very difficult for me to admit when I am running on fumes; when I can’t do something for someone; when I might need an extension, more time, more grace. It can also feel a bit simplistic to say that I am trying to treat myself with more care and compassion in the wake of trauma—when you’ve been underwater, you don’t think of the life raft you’re floating on in terms of “self-care.” It took me a long time to learn that if I don’t think about the things I need, from sleep and regular meals to breaks and time to grieve, my writing practice—and other parts of my life, too—may start to feel untenable.
The second book has been tough, I won’t lie; there are plenty of problems I have not yet solved. But I am more hopeful about my writing than I have been in a long time, and this feels like an affirmation of the kind of creative life I’m trying hard to build—one that is not merely productive in some frenzied short term, but satisfying and sustainable over the months and years. It’s the reason I am now (finally) sitting with this maybe-too-long, deeply imperfect first draft, and it’s what will allow me to keep doing the work I want to do.
Dear I Have Notes,
I do a lot of academic writing, and I do some writing for the general public, too. I find that I write better sentences—ones that I enjoy seeing later—in my academic writing. As a voracious reader of trade books, I feel sad about this. Do I write better academic texts because I enjoy them more, or do I enjoy these sentences because they come more easily to me?
— Sad Sackademic
If you feel that academic writing comes more easily to you now—and even if this always remains true!—that doesn’t mean that you don’t also excel at writing for a general audience. It could just be that academic writing is more familiar and comfortable. It’s played a significant role in advancing your career, which could lead to you feeling more confident and sure of those skills, and thus a bit freer when you write.
It’s always worth analyzing your own writing to identify why you’re especially proud of certain pieces: What exactly makes them work for you? Does the strength of a particular story or article have anything to do with how well you were supported throughout the drafting, editing, and publication process? How sure you felt about your intentions, your subject matter, your audience? How much you were allowed and encouraged to make the narrative choices that felt right to you? What other factors, if any, might have enabled you to do what you consider to be your best work, and are there ways you can try to replicate some of those same conditions when writing and publishing other types of pieces?
Lucille Clifton once said that her approach to her poetry was “a balance … between intellect and intuition.” You’re already an expert in your field, no doubt adept at expressing complex ideas with care and precision. Now, as we all are, you’re continuing to develop your writer’s intuition: a sense for what else belongs on the page, in the language that feels right to you.
We write the way we do because of who we are, and in your case, that includes your education and training, all the skills you’ve acquired throughout your academic career. I have to think that these can only be assets as you pursue writing in whatever form(s) you’re drawn to. You already love and appreciate reading non-academic writing, and if it’s a priority for you to write it, you’ll keep finding opportunities to improve and reach all the audiences you want to reach.
Dear I Have Notes,
I am a fellow writer hoping to publish one day. However, I have lived enough life to know that my beliefs, perspective, and “sure” stances evolve, shift, and are corrected as I gain life experience and hopefully wisdom. I consistently deal with fear of sharing my journey before I’ve “arrived” at my final destination of how I understand an experience that I had or a belief I currently hold. Have you dealt with this, as a writer? How do you overcome it, or accept that it will happen?
— Not There Yet
Dear Not There Yet,
I do understand the worry you mention. It’s one reason why we might cringe a bit when we revisit older work—sometimes I’ll read something I published four or five years ago and think, A different person must have written this. And sometimes I’ll feel that way about something I wrote just four or five months ago. It’s true, in a way, because to live is to know that you will change. While no amount of time will alter what happened to you, so many other things can and do shift: your perspective, your feelings, your values and beliefs, your relationships and connections. The act of writing about something—holding it up to the light, considering it from every angle, attempting to translate it for others—can also change and complicate our relationship to it. And so the works you write and share are time capsules, in a sense, preserving not only the moments you choose to write about, but also the precise moment at which you write them.
If I were writing my first book today as opposed to five years ago, it would be a very different story. Not because my search for my birth family or my journey to parenthood would have unfolded otherwise, but because I’m not the same writer I was then—or the same person, for that matter. I’m five years on in my relationships with everyone involved; I’ve had five more years to consider what happened to all of us, and who we became as a result. If I tried to write the book 10 years from now, there would be still more questions to ask, more complications and new revelations to sift through.
Of course, sometimes you may find that you do need more space from a given subject or experience, more time to think about or process something and figure out what you believe, before you can tackle it in writing. Or you might realize that you never want to write about it publicly. That’s always okay—it’s important to consider your comfort level and privacy, your boundaries, what you know you need before writing or publishing.
I’m not sure that there is ever a “final destination” when it comes to understanding ourselves or the things that have happened to us. And knowing that what you believe or how you feel about something might change—even change dramatically—over the next several years doesn’t necessarily mean that what you think and feel about it now is invalid, or unworthy of exploration. It can be meaningful to ask questions for which we might not have definitive answers; to consider events and relationships that are far from settled matters; to invite readers along in pursuit of a new perspective or understanding, even if some of these discoveries give way to new ones later on. A story need not be unchanging to be true or valuable.
Thanks so much as always for being here! If you have a question for my advice column, you can send it to email@example.com.