Don’t Be an All-or-Nothing Writer

By Calvin Hennick

For two years, I did little else besides work on the novel.

Or, more accurately: “The Novel.”

Or, most accurately: “THE NOVEL!!!”

I holed myself up in my office, scribbling out a 700-page longhand first draft in a few months, and then I wrote to the end two more times. Every book I read, every movie I watched, even a foreign language I tried to learn – were all research for The Novel. I stayed up most nights until 3 or 4 a.m., pounding on my keyboard and rearranging color-coded index cards, buoyed by two-liter bottles of Diet Pepsi and the knowledge that once this book was finished, I’d finally be a Real Writer. And then my life could finally begin.

Until that day, I wouldn’t allow myself vacations. I wouldn’t take a weekend away to visit friends. And I certainly wouldn’t work on some other project simply because I was excited about it.

But little more than a year ago, I ran out of steam. I had three full drafts in hand, but the finish line was still out of view, and I had no idea how to get there. I made a few false starts on a fourth draft, and then I tucked The Novel away to let it (and myself) mellow for a while.

At first, I felt like a failure. I’d poured all my self-worth and my identity as a writer into this one project. Any hours that I wasn’t working on it felt wasted.

But I found that life didn’t really start when I finished The Novel. Life started when I gave myself permission to poke my head out of my office and start living it. I finally read for pleasure again, took trips, dusted off my snowboard and hiking boots, and stopped feeling guilty for spending time with my wife and son instead of alone at my laptop.

And what did I do with the rest of the time I wasn’t working on The Novel? I expanded my freelance writing business, started teaching and taking classes at Grub, joined a fun and fantastic writing group, began writing this column, and wrote a dozen or so short stories and essays – even publishing a few of them.

What wasted hours, huh?

When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was too scared of failure to actually write anything. My years working on The Novel weren’t so different – I was too scared of failing at this one thing to work on anything else. Instead of validating me as a Real Writer, The Novel kept me from tackling new projects, from sending out work, from discovering great books, from hanging out with writer friends and attending readings and meeting new people.

Sure, I was a writer. But I was missing out on a lot of the good stuff.

I haven’t given up on The Novel. I’m hopeful enough time has passed that, when I come back to it, the fixes will seem obvious to me, hidden in plain sight. More likely, though, the work will be the same as it always is, a mixture of muse and mire. I’ll start shot out of a cannon, but before long I’ll find myself banging my head against the wall at 3 a.m., surrounded by empty two-liters and wadded-up pages.

When that happens, I hope I’ll remember to shut off my computer and come back fresh after leaving my office for a day or two. There’s a whole other life out there.

About the Author

Calvin Hennick’s, fiction, essays, and journalism have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Baltimore Review, the Boston Globe, Runner’s World, Eating Well, and dozens of other publications. He has taught writing at UMass Boston and in New York City’s public schools. 

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