We’re a contrary bunch. We want attention (on our books) but we want to be left alone (to just write). We appreciate your interest in our writing but we really don’t want you asking us about our writing. Well, that last one deserves more nuance. We appreciate that you appreciate our writing, but this question – when’s your next book coming out? – or its variations – you working on another book? – can send us spiraling.
Our inner responses, the things we dare not say out loud can range from the snappish – I’m not working on an assembly line, it takes time, back up off me – to the utterly despairing – I don’t know, I’m stuck, I’m a fraud, I know you see it, don’t pretend.
There’s always that vague sense that you’re disappointed that we don’t have that next book ready to go – (insert real favourite writer’s name here) has a new book out every six months, why do you write so slow? Of course, you may not be thinking this at all, your when’s the new book coming might just be your version of “hi!” but given that writers live in the uncertain space of will I ever write anything worth writing again (and again not all writers, some are blessed like that), your “hi!” can feel like you’re digging your finger into an open wound and wiggling it around…and delighting in the pain it causes and the squishy sound it makes. Why are you so mean!
Nah, I’m kidding, writers love readers – you are our air. And now I’m overstating.
But not about the question though, we hate it. Yes, we. It’s one of the things we gripe about at our secret writer meetings when you’re not around. And, yes, we totally have secret writer meetings. A secret knock and handshake too.
In all honesty, though, the question can send us (some of us) spiraling depending on where we are in the process. I should just say me, right? Except I’ve heard enough writers gripe about this (no, not at the secret meetings; there are no secret meetings…unless you count workshops) to know it’s not just me. But it did sort of happen to me, yesterday.
I’ve been hearing some variation of this question since my first book The Boy from Willow Bend came out.
The beautiful thing was, back then, before Willow Bend had even been published, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight had been acquired by the same publisher and was ready to go. That’s how publishers – and writers – like it. But a book takes time to write and both of those books between writing (months) and revising (more months) took what added up to years; it just so happened that a book also takes a while to sell so that when the publisher asked, got anything else, I could honestly answer, yes, yes I do.
It doesn’t always work like that. When I published Oh Gad! that was all she wrote – well technically she had her first two unpublished manuscript in a do-not-open mailed-to-self envelope somewhere (see poor man’s copyright) but …yeah, not so much. Oh Gad! was published in 2012. Since then I’ve published Fish Outta Water (a children’s picture book), Musical Youth (a teen/young adult novel and finalist for the Burt Award), re-issued Dancing Nude in the Moonlight as part of a larger collection Dancing Nude in the Moonlight: 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, have With Grace (a second children’s picture book) getting ready to drop, been published in A River of Stories, Round My Christmas Tree, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, A Letter for My Mother, She Sex, In the Black: New African Canadian Writing, So the Nailhead Bend So the Story End, For Women: in Tribute to Nina Simone plus journal publications, hustling and juggling writing and editing assignments, workshop activities – the ones I facilitate and the ones I go to to work on my craft, voluntary activities (especially Wadadli Pen which can feel like a full time job) and then some. (sidebar: check out my books, my projects, my workshops, my fiction, my poetry)
And still I’m plagued in such times, when that question inevitably drops as it did yesterday, by doubt that I’ll ever write anything worthwhile…ever?…again?…take your pick. And as unsatisfying as my I’m always working on something response is (I can see it in your face), it is the truth – because carving out time to write is what I’m always trying to do, and in fact I just started an online writing course, not because I need more on my plate but because I need to make my writing a priority. The works in progress have been works in progress for so long, I kind of just want to trash them and move on, and yet I know they’re not done with me yet. I’m as frustrated by my progress as you are to see what my next book is going to be. And I am truly grateful for the interest all 10 or 9 of you have in that next book – grateful to have any kind of fan base. But that question just underscores my failure to deliver, and the truth is my or any other writer’s frustration with that question has very little to do with you. The person we’re really frustrated with is ourselves.
Yesterday, the last time someone asked me that question, had begun with a rejection in my inbox. If you’re a freelance writer, you’re always pitching something; if you’re freelance writer-editor-workshop-facilitator-writing-coach, you’re always casting a net because you’ve got to draw business to yourself. You get used to being ignored or being rejected, and you catch enough business to live to fish another day and on good days to have a fish fry in which friends and fam can share (okay, putting that belaboured metaphor to bed…sorry…but see what I mean?)
Usually you don’t get in your emotions about rejections (not every one, because come on, how would you function?) But something about the casual “we’ll pass” in this particular rejection (random as it was) hit me funny – had nothing to do with the market itself and only a little bit to do with the off-hand tone, and everything to do with where I was before opening that email. I powered through like I always do but by evening I was weepy and depressed, and I’m not delusional enough to think it had everything to do with that rejection or was because the when’s the next book coming out (and its cousins what are you working, what exactly is it you do again) triggered that frustrated feeling.
It has to do with that sense as you cut through a path only you can walk that you could be headed in the completely wrong direction, hit a dead end, fall off a cliff. And that’s something I’d venture most writers – even those with the security of tenure or big bank feel at some point or other. In to that space of uncertainty comes the question-s, what are you working on, when’s your next book coming out, and your mind goes blank, because you truly don’t know; and that feels disorienting as fuck.
But you get up the next day, as I did today, and you …write.
How about you, what questions do you hate?