When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don’t talk about your book until it’s published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005).
I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.”
When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book.
But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections.
Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer.
Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely.
Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature.
But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.
Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.
Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work.
Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.