Editor’s Note: Author Caroline Van Hemert is our special guest at Winter Words 2020, the 49 Writers annual fundraiser happening Sunday, February 23, 2020. Tickets is limited, but there are still some available.
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway
As a scientist, I’ve always regarded the publishing process as maddeningly slow. The tedium of data entry, statistical analyses, citation lists, and consultation with co-authors often means that years pass between completing a study and actually seeing it emerge on the pages of a scientific journal. Only later, as an aspiring creative writer, did I appreciate the glacial time scales of bringing a book into the world. My debut memoir, The Sun is a Compass (Little, Brown Spark 2019), took more than six years to complete. During that period, I accumulated over a thousand manuscript files on my computer, many of these partial or full rewrites. I never would have guessed that a single book would require so much time, revision, and personal reckoning. Of course I wasn’t unique when I began, but simply naïve.
There are aspects of publishing that feel more like luck than merit—undoubtedly an element of serendipity exists in landing an agent, finding an editor, and aligning with the hot topics du jour. It’s easy to get bogged down in what we can’t control. But what we do control is the writing. As writers, we must trust the creative process. And part of the creative process is becoming comfortable with producing embarrassingly bad writing. Inspiration and words on the page don’t always align as we’d like. In fact, sometimes it takes a shockingly long time for our ideas to germinate. First draft, terrible. Second draft, still nails-on-chalkboard awful. We offer water, sunlight, and nutrients, and our stubborn seed remains dormant. Third draft—is that a tiny green shoot I see? By the fourth or fifth draft, the leaves turn to sentences and the idea begin to take shape. But beware of overwatering, root rot, or withering into a husk. There’s no single moment of epiphany. Sometimes, we have the opposite problem—an early sprout that later refuses to grow tall, a single perfect phrase but nothing more. If you’re like me, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. We write, rewrite, and rewrite again.
Once in a while, I’ve managed to circumvent this laborious cycle of revision. Occasionally, the first draft is a decent one. It almost always appears after I’ve been outdoors, skiing or running or biking—letting go mentally by digging in physically. Perhaps it’s because I trust my toes to find solid footing, my wheels to grip against the gravel, and my skis to slide along the snow. I allow my body to lead. When I sit down at my computer, sweaty and elated, and begin to type, I know I’ve found something worth holding onto. In those instances, I turn not to analysis but gratitude. There’s no magic formula for writing well, except to put words to the page. And to try again. And again. When I get stuck, as I inevitably do, I rejoice in the monotony of entering numbers into a spreadsheet, destined to someday find their way in the world. I go outside, allowing my muscles to share the load. I trust that getting it wrong is a necessary part of eventually getting it right.
Caroline Van Hemert is an author, adventurer, and wildlife biologist. She will be the featured author at Winter Words 2020, where the first paperback copies of her memoir, The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, will be available. Recipient of the Banff Mountain Book Competition award, Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, and Alaska Literary Award, her work has been featured in the New York Times, Audubon, Birding, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Outside. For more: www.carolinevanhemert.com.