Three days after you read this blog post, I am going to start writing my third novel. I already know this because I have planned a gathering of writers in my house for this weekend, and we will all be holed up in our separate spaces working on our manuscripts. The difference with me is that my manuscript will be completely new on Saturday morning. I will be sitting down to write the very first sentences of the first draft.
I recall a few years ago reading somewhere that Elizabeth Gilbert had chosen the start date for the writing of her next book--the novel that would become The Signature of All Things. Her announcement of this date some months into the future was met with a range of emotions, including awe, delight, and derision. Derision because how could Gilbert make what amounted to an appointment with the muse? How could she know in, say, December that she would be ready to go in April? What if she needed more time, or, perhaps even stranger: what if she needed less?
When I chose the last weekend in May for a writing retreat at home (a staycreation?), I thought I would have already begun my book, but over the past few weeks, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to begin until the date of the actual retreat. And so, like Gilbert, I have scheduled the muse (and, full disclosure, copious Googling yielded no trace of Gilbert’s announcement so I may have hallucinated it).
Gilbert has said that she writes in seasons, taking several months or even years to work on research and preparation before diving into a season of writing. In other words, when she does arrive at her scheduled start date for a given manuscript, she is ready.
I don’t feel ready.
Should this bother me? Should my perceived lack of readiness deter me? More importantly, should readiness deter any of us from embarking on new creative projects? And what really makes us ready anyway? How do we know?
If your experience of writing has been, like mine, a series of discoveries and revelations, then maybe you aren’t a very good judge of readiness after all. I know that I have felt numerous times that this time I know where the essay or chapter or plot is going, only to find that something in that new approach still doesn’t work. Yes, eventually I get it right--I feel I am done at the same time that the piece is actually done--but that’s almost dumb luck. If you are sure of your direction enough times, you’re bound to get it right once.
Because my experience of writing novels has shown me that I seldom see the whole manuscript accurately when I begin, I’m arriving at the realization that readiness is overrated. You’re going to change things anyway, and none of us is writing in stone tablets these days, so erasure, revision, and new beginnings are all easy to live through. There is no lasting damage in taking a false turn; in fact, it’s inevitable to do so. So, with that in mind, why not plunge in even though your plans might not be in perfect literary order?
I’m not trying to be cavalier about the very real responsibilities to historical accuracy, or about the rigor necessary to produce good prose. But I think we can go astray if we view preparation as something akin to grocery shopping, in which we must be sure to gather every recipe ingredient before we leave the store. We’re not baking a cake. We’re inventing a world.
“I was born ready.” We’ve all made this joke at one point or another--because there’s something funny about the idea of an ironclad state of preparedness. When it comes to embarking on a new writing project, we’re best off remembering the humor here. We’re never going to be fully ready, so we might as well start.
Henriette Lazaridis' debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in April 2013 and was a Boston Globe best-seller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including ELLE, Narrative Magazine, Forge, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant. She has degrees in English from Middlebury College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a Ph.D. She taught at Harvard for ten years before leaving academia to turn to writing. In the summers, she runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece (www.krounawritingworkshop.com).See other articles by Henriette Lazaridis