On writing the book: “inspirations” and process

People do ask a lot, “How do you write a book?” People also ask, “How do you publish a book?”

These are hard questions to engage, because they are so non-specific. Which part of “how,” do you mean. “A book,” or “this book,” or do you really mean, “How can I write my book,” and “How can I publish my book.”

Once, when someone asked me, “How do you publish a book,” with no context at all, I started to talk about the submissions process to different editors for different publishers, figuring out who to send to (i.e. who would be a “good fit”), then including cover letters, and then manuscript excerpts versus entire bodies. This person proceeded to snap back at me with impatience. “That’s not what I mean.” And then stormed off. That was awkward, and I felt like an asshole.

And then of course there are the numerous times that I refer an aspiring author to different websites that collect and organize publishing information, and tell them their research — getting to know what’s out there and figuring out where they may fit — begins there. I either get in response the internet version of the blank stare, or the super angry, “You’re no fucking help at all.”

So I go back to the good conversations I have with other writers, with some of my graduate students, people who already know there’s more to publishing than snapping their fingers and thereby, magically making it so.

These fellow writers, and my graduate students, are the people asking me questions about how a manuscript comes into its form, how a manuscript coalesces into this thing ready as can be, for an editor’s eyes. How do you go from a germ of an idea for a single poem, into a body of poems that can be envisioned as a book manuscript. This “germ,” can be so many things, so many seemingly “small” things. That’s the thing about germs and germination.

Maybe instead of something so concrete (albeit metaphorical) about the beginnings of a life of a thing that grows, you want to use a more mythical word such as “inspiration,” here. Sure, whatever suits you. Although I will say, there is something passive about “inspiration,” as in, waiting for inspiration to hit you. Most serious writers I know are not so abstract, and are actively seeking and pursuing “inspiration,” in ways that address work ethic and actual practice.

I’ve seen the look of utter fear on my grad students’ faces when I say at the beginning of the semester that we are going to write and build bodies of work; submit 10 pages minimum in the next three weeks, and let’s go. And that by the end of the semester, you will have a minimum of 25-30, maybe even 45 pages.

And then they learn that it’s an exercise in purge, in temporarily suspending their internal editors, and then in writing what is most currently important to them to be writing, how many different approaches and angles there are, how many different poetic voices they can muster, how to follow tangents and more tangents, so much connective tissue. This is a body, and the logic of its structure starts to become apparent to you, the more deeply you get to know it.

I see it this way: the “thing” is in the center of the room, and you are looking at it from various angles, from different vantage points and distances. You are writing about it in its static and dynamic states. You are interacting with it. You are building it, filling it.

So your manuscript in progress: You start to question how important it is. This is good. You start to question your own ideas of importance. This is also good. You start to question your confidence in your own poetic voice. This is excellent. You start to realize that countless other authors have gone through this before, routinely and thoroughly, and so you are not alone, and your struggle isn’t all that unique, and so you start to actively find out how they did what they did. This is hella excellent. (This last part might also be the beginning of the answer to “How do you publish,” by looking at what the authors before and around you have done.)

And that — to me — is how you write a book. That may not be a good enough answer for some people.

 

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