This is my last full week to work on my book, and so of course every time I look at it, the problems all but leap off the page at me. A problem might be an entire scene I feel shaky about, or a single punctuation mark I’m questioning; I have no sense of scale or objectivity. Anxious as I am, I love this kind of close line-level work—it is my favorite type of writing. I would be thrilled to do it for another year. I’ve got a week.
I have been collecting feedback from my small but mighty group of early readers, some of whom I basically consider book therapists at this point. Last week, one of them asked if I was nervous because the process was rushed, and I had to admit that it was not, at least not entirely: I started this book in 2019. But then my mother got sick, and when I was able to focus on writing again, I realized I would need to scrap nearly everything I had written and start over. I’ve been working on this version for about a year and a half. “If it were a baby, it wouldn’t even have all its teeth yet!” I said, which suddenly seemed to me like a very good point.
“But it’s not a baby,” my friend said gently.
This was always going to be a difficult book to write and a difficult book to stop writing, which is not to say that any book is easy. When I started it, I knew I wanted to write about losing my father, as I was grappling not only with his death, but also the reality of how he died—like too many people in this country, he spent decades unable to access the medical care he needed. At the time, I didn’t know that my mother and I would soon be facing another crisis, or that the story I was working on would take another form in a world mourning millions of COVID-19 deaths. By the time I started over, it seemed as though everyone I knew was traumatized and grieving, and here I was, spending what little spare time I had writing about trauma and grief.
We often write about painful things not in spite of the pain, but because of it—the pain itself tells us that something important occurred. In the last memoir workshop I taught, a student asked me, How do you write about something painful without constantly retraumatizing yourself? One of the things I said in response was that I try to recognize when I may not be ready to write about something, and give myself the time I need.