When I was a young, unpublished writer, I had a delusional confidence in my eventual success, which I imagined as a career path that would go straight up until I lounged in first class, just beneath the fiery pantheon of the greats. It didn’t occur to me that this was because I was working in solitude and that solitude had always been my safety. I’d spent my childhood mostly alone, making up stories, drawing pictures, reading books, and my college years coping with social and sexual stress by absconding to the woods and into poetry; so finally being out of school, writing most of the day and cooking for my husband and stepchildren at night, was by no means a perfect life, but the problems were all due to my fears of the world beyond the driveway, not to any fear of going inside my head. Inside was the green zone and the original garden, both fortified and thick with magic.
Once I decided to switch from poetry to fiction, I was astonished and joyful at how easily words tumbled from my brain—dialogue, description; at the same time, I worked harder than I ever had figuring out how to write the parts that didn’t come so easily. I had taken only one undergraduate fiction-writing course, so I had to learn the basics by myself, and I enjoyed the challenge. What makes a character? How to describe a smile? Poking and prying at sentences, making them say more with less; dislodging the humdrum word and inserting a racehorse noun, quivering with tension; moving paragraphs from one chapter to another, or even one character to another, because I could do anything—it was my world, it was so satisfying that I couldn’t believe any other career provided equivalent pleasures. I pitied everyone who was not a writer, and specifically a fiction writer.
I wasn’t concerned about how long it was taking me to publish (10 years). I was fortunate to have enough family money to pay my share of the bills without a job. Not that I didn’t want a job—I did, at least part-time—but I was so severely shy that nothing but absolute necessity could have made me apply for one. Writing was my bridge to other people, but it was one that led to the future, which I thought of as fundamentally different, free of the insecurity and incompleteness of my present-day life.
Being published dissolved this illusion. I’d made it happen in the usual manner—reading articles on how to get an agent, mining contacts, retyping 400-page manuscripts several times, licking manila envelopes—yet I still imagined it would be something like a honeymoon with a god. And there were indeed moments that felt like that. Seeing the new books in their gorgeous jackets; seeing them on shelves in my local bookstores; seeing my name in the New York Times Book Review. Transient glory. The more lasting effect was that my work was no longer my refuge. It represented me in the world, and like those who fear their friends or spouse will embarrass them in front of important others, I worried at my books’ ability to betray me, even as I wanted nothing more than to be read.
After the reviews, royalty statements, letters from strangers and remarks from people whose responses I’d never considered (my mother’s friends, distant relatives), I started to dream about writing, as I’ve been doing ever since. My dreams don’t directly address the world of material books; I don’t show up at a signing naked or start reading from my novel only to realize I’ve plagiarized Shakespeare. I have two kinds of dreams: in the first, I have a brilliant book in my head, the whole thing complete, though oddly missing its words. The story is the most sweeping, majestic, soulful, mysterious, delectable story ever not quite written. As soon as I put pen to paper, I become aware I’m dreaming, and that I’ll wake up soon. I try to note the main points, the characters, the plot, but of course I can’t—when I wake up there’s absolutely nothing but that haunting memory, that fragrance of genius.
I think of that dream as the meta dream, the one where I’ve gotten the architecture of dreaming confused with that of writing, and thought for a moment that the infinite palace of images, the deep story of my brain, was actually mine for the taking. That I could contain it consciously. That words could hold it. It makes me aware that I’m capable of more than I know, but also that I’ll never sound the depths of my potential, that nobody ever does. The dream is a rebuke to consciousness. Consciousness can only retaliate with its best weapon, forgetting.
In the second kind of dream I’ve got an actual manuscript. It’s the one I’m currently working on. There’s a thick pile of pages on my desk, but somehow the pages are also a cake or a cat or a piece of pottery, and there’s something alarming and necessary about my manuscript’s spooky ability to shape-shift. It won’t be like this when it’s finished, will it? I don’t want to sell someone a book that turns into a cake—or worse, a book where the words change from day to day, the live thing between the covers making its own adjustments. It ferments, that manuscript. It’s full of tiny organisms. Some would call them words. I’m not sure they aren’t worms, overwriting each other, sending messages to a distant master, or the other kind of worms, churning my story to democratic dirt.
Longing and anxiety, one feeding the other. I want to write the book inside me that will never be written, and because it will never, can never, be written, whatever I do write squirms uneasily. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? What’s wrong with me that I can’t pull out my most urgent stories? Do I really want to? Yet this second dream provokes not only anxiety, but excitement. My story awaits me. It wants me. It’s kept itself alive all night, all week, sometimes even for years. Come play, it whispers. I miss you.
But the published books—I don’t open those if I can help it. Who knows what they are. Who knows what I’ll see in them. It doesn’t matter that I rewrote each one dozens of time. I’ve forgotten all the details. I prefer it that way.