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When my memoir came out a few years ago, I did an inventory of all the writing projects I could focus on. I had a bunch of essays in various stages of development, the first draft of a book proposal for a biography, and lots of ideas for short pieces, but the project that excited me most was a novel.
I hadn’t written fiction in ten years (and had deep doubts about my ability to fashion a coherent plot), but I had a germ of an idea I couldn’t stop thinking about, so I dove in. After spending such a long time on my memoir, the process of writing fiction felt so free, so emergent. But one thing was the same: the lonely, day-to-day struggle of managing my anxiety about the project and convincing myself to keep going with this strange amorphous thing that no one else believed in or needed.
I can’t remember what led me to John Steinbeck’s Working Days, the daily journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, but I’m not sure I would have stuck with the novel during those early months if I hadn’t been grounded in his experience.
When he started the book, Steinbeck had a number of successful novels under his belt. And yet Working Days is filled with doubt and self-recrimination. As hard as it was for him to actually do the work that went into writing Grapes of Wrath, it’s clear from these pages that managing his anxiety about the work was just as challenging.
His first journal entry sets the scene: I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but you can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.
Ten sessions later, he’s more positive. This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted—slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.
A third of the way through the drafting, he hits a low point: Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable . . . my many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were . . . I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
Since January, I’ve taken a cue from Steinbeck and kept a careful record of the writing I do every day. It’s been surprisingly encouraging to watch the way I cycle between a sense of flow and euphoria and moments of total confusion and doubt. As the days and words pile up, I feel myself starting to build up a little more trust that I can write through the tough days and eventually come out on the other side.