The Awful Truth About Writing Books

Writing a book is a way of transformation.

That sounds cool, hip, and New-Age-y—until you experience it firsthand.

At one level, writing—the act of filling the void of a blank page or screen with words—is a purging flame. Anything that is not fire-proof gets consumed and crumbles and then turns to ash.

Suppose that I write a sentence that’s unclear, illogical, or unsupported by evidence. Writing will make this fact immediately obvious. That sentence stands in front of me — there, etched into the page or screen, naked, without pretense, with true colors showing.

To the trained eye, any defect of syntax, diction, grammar, or reasoning in that string of words becomes immediately obvious. It’s like walking barefoot in a public place and suddenly seeing one of your feet turn purple.

So, I sit at the keyboard with the aim to turn something that I absolutely know into words. Before I take a break, I want to state one thing that is true.

Then I look back at what I’ve written and discover that it is unclear. It is incoherent. I can’t muster one piece of evidence for the main point of the passage. I’m not even sure what it means, really.

I discover, in fact, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe everything I thought I knew about this topic is pure smoke. Vapor. Ashes.

This is the point at which editing begins. This is transformation, but it is not always fun. In fact, it is a constant lesson in humility.

While drafting, anything is permitted — sloppy thinking, errors, lack of proof. But editing is different. Editing is the sustained attempt to say one true thing, one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. This is the hardest and most rewarding work I know.

As Socrates pointed out, the realization that you don’t know is the beginning of knowledge — that most rare and precious commodity, even in the age of “information.” When you see that you do not know, you are in an ideal state to learn.

Before you attempt to publish something that you write, please submit it to a few reviewers. Send your manuscript to people who will honestly say what they think. If they’re compassionate and balanced and skilled at giving feedback—wonderful. But even if they are not, they are doing you a favor.

This is especially important if you are putting your deepest beliefs into words. Hold these up to the fire as well. Just know that some of the ideas to which you are most attached might fall away. In fact, your whole identity might come into question.

Consider these words from a stark and beautiful book titled The Way of Transformation by Karlfried Graf Dürckheim. It was written about Zen meditation practice but it also applies to the fire of editing:

The man who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and encourages his old self to survive.

Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a “raft that leads to the far shore.”

Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.

In this lies the dignity of daring.


Photo by josef.stuefer, Flickr Creative Commons