Liz Scott describes what it feels like to work so hard and long on creating and birthing a book, and all the feelings that follow its publication and release into this world.
On April 23rd, 2019, I stood at the podium at the venerable Powell’s bookstore in front of a packed house for the official launch of my memoir, This Never Happened. That evening will live on as a top five peak experience for me.
I’d worked on my book for a couple of years, bringing each chapter to my writing group, so grateful for their help and their critique. I was gratified—and yes, even sort of thrilled—every time they found a chapter finished or even a sentence they particularly liked. So many small victories. Countless.
Then came the daunting task of finding a home for my book. First: write a killer query letter. Just like the chapters in my book, I slaved over this document, again bringing it to my treasured group for their help and advice. Revising and revising. A small thrill when I had a letter I felt proud of.
And then another contender for lifetime peak experience: an email from the folks who would become my publisher, telling me yes, they love my book; yes, they want to publish my book! I lived off that thrill for a good long time, I must say.
Then came meeting with my editor—revising and tweaking—each agreed-upon change a mini victory.
Finally, those of you who have published a book know just what I mean about the heart-swelling feeling when that first box of books arrives, when this thing you have worked on so hard is now an actual, in-the-real-world object. When I held that book in my hands for the first time, verging on euphoria!
As I write this, I am eight months from that evening at Powell’s. Yes, the high from that event lingered. There were social media posts and messages from friends that kept the feeling stoked. Photographs. Good reviews. Memories I will always have. Yes. But.
I can’t pin down the moment when the let-down crept in. A week later? A couple of days? Maybe even hours. There were still exciting things on my plate. I had other readings scheduled, essays connected to the book to write, podcasts and interviews. All good things. All fun and exciting, for sure. But I was clearly aware of this feeling, something like slipping down the other side of the hill. I’d slogged my way to the top, had the moment at the apex, and now was on the slide down the other side. All that energy that went into creating this thing, all that time, all that emotion. And now what.
This is something I’d never thought about before: it seems that books have a lifespan. Okay, not Lolita or Don Quixote or The Great Gatsby or so many other books by the blessed few in the category of famous writers. But for most of us, our books die in their infancy or when they are mere children if we’re talking dog years. At first, the book feels so alive; but in the weeks and months following publication, you can practically see the life draining away, bit by bit, like your book was written in ink that fades to nothing with time.
At first, the book feels so alive; but in the weeks and months following publication, you can practically see the life draining away, bit by bit, like your book was written in ink that fades to nothing with time.
I don’t think my book is dead quite yet and I’m still sitting by the bedside. And actually, it’s not really about the death of my book, more that the time when it was mine to form and influence is coming to a close and that is what I feel slipping away. It would help if I had something else to dig into, but while there is even weak breath in my book, I have not been able to focus on a new project with much attention. It seems I need access to 100% of my remaining brain cells to begin something new, so, creatively speaking, it’s a virtual wasteland in my head.
And then there is this: at every reading, I see something I would change, or think of something I forgot to add or wish I hadn’t. If I could, I would take a red pencil to my book in almost every chapter. Just a while back, I remembered that I have a photograph that would have been absolutely perfect to include in one of my chapters. I so wish I had. I went to hear Michael Cunningham speak shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours and he said that he cried all the way to his publisher’s when he was delivering his final draft, aware of how much better it could be if he just kept working on it. I doubt it’s just the two of us—Michael Cunningham and me—that wish there were changes we could make in our finished manuscripts, that regret some decisions we made in the writing.
And then there are all the unflattering, hard-to-cop-to, basket of feelings. Social media is to blame for a lot of this, I imagine. Twenty years ago, I might have never known that so-and-so’s book was on such-and-such’s annual list of best books. Or that someone got a shout-out from Oprah. Or that someone else was invited to present at the book festival and I wasn’t. But here we are, with all of this in our faces, largely unavoidable because, at least for most of us, we need social media to help with promotion, which I find an ugly bind.
So, I’m sitting by the bedside, at once grieving and also working hard to bat away—or at least manage—all those pesky ego-based feelings. It’s not perfect, this book of mine, and not even close to everything it could be. Strangely, though, I am finding a place of comfort. Letting go. That’s my job now and isn’t there always a lightening that comes with that?
As a psychologist, I can’t tell you how often I talk with clients about letting go—how much we need to, how hard it is, and ultimately how much peace it can bring. I’ve birthed this book and nurtured it to this point and now it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Letting go.