What are writers so afraid of?

21 Nov

Just today someone, presumably after having read here or on my Facebook that I had completed a new novel, asked me about the book: What’s it about?  The disappointed, slightly hurt look on the questioner’s face when I said, “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about that,” told me that he had actually been expecting an answer.  This guy obviously does not know any other writers.

People whose vocation, or avocation, consists of conjuring something out of nothing the way fiction writers must do, are notoriously reluctant to discuss work in progress.

Scaring the Music Away

I once heard Neil Young,  in an interview about the delicate nature of musicality, say that music is easily spooked.  Once you’ve scared it off, it doesn’t matter what you do, you can go through all the motions, play all the notes, but there’s no more music in it.

Part of what makes writers reluctant to discuss work that has failed so far to completely materialize has to do with a concern similar to Young’s fear of frightening the music away.  What turns mere words on the page into art, something capable of stirring the human imagination, can seem similarly elusive.  You spend months and years conjuring: waving your pencils, your pens, your word processing cursors, over the text: waving and wishing and muttering quietly into the manuscript like an apprentice sorcerer, in the hopes that your hard work and the power of your inner voice will meet the world on the page in a way that imparts life to a mere collection of consonants and vowels scrawled in ink on a page.

Everyone who has ever tried to do this knows that it is seemingly the easiest thing in the world, especially to those who are well read in a variety of very good books.  You just say it, it’s easy to think.  And you read Hemingway or Atwood or McEwan as proof.  There it is in black marks on white: you just imagine a world and start scribbling to make it happen.

But words are easily written, characters easily described, actions and events, with some practice and a spark of inspiration, easily rendered in words.  But the difference, as Mark Twain once observed, between the right word and the almost right word, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.  One has the power to inspire human awe, the other sputters weakly for a few minutes on a summer’s night, then fades out forever and dies.

It is entirely possible to work on a project for years and have all your work come to nothing.  You’ve written a book-length work, you’ve gathered together all your best words and intentions, and it failed to turn into a novel.


But there is more to the reluctance of writers to discuss unpublished work than the superstition that it might fade into the ether before their eyes.

There is enormous uncertainty for fiction writers, even if they’ve already published books, even after they’ve completed a new manuscript, even if, as is currently the case with me, they have a contract with the publisher of their last novel.

Like any contract an individual signs with a powerful corporation, what the contract for my upcoming book requires of me is relatively straightforward.  I’m to provide the publisher with a book, for a set advance fee, by a certain date.  What that contract actually requires of the publisher seems much more elusive, like the fine print at the bottom of a mortgage that says the mortgagee is bound by the terms of the contract, but the mortgagor may change its mind, reset the terms and/or call the whole thing off at any time for any or no reason without prior notification.

So even though I have new book, and I have a book contract with a publisher, there are no certainties.  (A whole side issue is that the contract I have was signed in 2002, which as near as I can figure was the absolute peak of the Canadian Fiction Boom, a time when publishers were hungry for novels, readers were buying them up, and contracts were relatively easily come by and relatively lucrative.  Those days are long over.  My contract feels like the paper currency of a defunct state: interesting from a  historical point of view, but devoid of value.)


Even having said this much publicly: that I’ve completed a new novel, and that the company I have been calling ‘my publisher’ for eight years since I signed a two-book deal with them now has the book and is deciding whether or not to publish it, even having said that much, without mentioning a word of what the book is ‘about,’ that much feels like a risk.  There remains a very real possibility that though I’ve worked for years on this current book, that though I’ve reworked the manuscript so many times I can only hazard a guess at what the actual draft number of its current incarnation might be, the idea that this book might never see the light of publication day seems a very real possible outcome to me.  And frankly, it will be an embarrassment to have to admit it.


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