This is an edited version of a blog post that ran previously on 49 Writers.
“If you’re going to live your life based on delusions, and you are, because we all do, then why not at least select a delusion that is helpful? Allow me to suggest this one. The work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
I am lucky to have a writer friend visiting me at the moment, and in addition to drinking a number of margaritas, we’ve had the chance to talk for days about writing. Sure, we talk about the things we’ve written. But even more time is spent on the things still to write or–and this is where nostalgia can turn toward the bittersweet—the things we never got around to writing.
Boy, do I have a list, especially when it comes to nonfiction.
Perhaps the idea itself wasn’t fully formed, or perhaps I simply lost the chutzpah and the stamina to keep plunging and stumbling. Unlike fiction, which can be endlessly reshaped, nonfiction ideas often have a shelf life. I have at various times started to write books or parts of books about cod, climate change, volunteerism, sprint bicycle racing, and much more. (I get no credit for any of those projects, of course, because I did not finish them. Ideas are cheap.)
Many of those ideas had a timely quality. An editor asked me recently about digging up one of my old nonfiction book projects and I told her that it was too late. The info was dated. The zeitgeist had changed.
About half of those books died at the stage when I—or someone I turned to for guidance, like an agent or specialist in the field I was trying to write about—ventured a guess at the readership and marketing side of things. I know enough now to realize that when it comes to marketing, even the experts can’t predict what will sell.
When I was a tender young writer, I was told that no one—not a single person— would ever read a book about cod. I did not manage to excite an agent about the concept of the American house. Mark Kurlansky and Bill Bryson went ahead with their books about cod and about the history of the house—and good for them. The stories were out there. As Gilbert says above: “The work wants to be made.”
By now, you’ve probably heard more than a few times about the story Gilbert tells in her incredibly generous book Big Magic. She failed to finish a book and the spirit of that idea, she sincerely believes, packed up and left her, and then entered the mind of Ann Patchett, who ended up writing a freakishly similar novel. Gilbert’s attitude about this is wonderful. She doesn’t think the universe is unfair. She feels like she got to witness a miracle.
Sometimes I think I am fonder of these unrealized ideas than of the things I’ve actually written. I think of them as old friends I lost touch with. Why didn’t we keep updating each other when we moved or changed email addresses? Why didn’t I value them enough?
What struck me during my conversations with my visiting friend is that I still believe those old ideas were good. I still think I should have moved ahead with them.
Here’s the new thing I’m only realizing at middle age: When I consider what I would have learned and all that I would have experienced by writing those books, I don’t worry in retrospect about their sales potential. Not one bit.
With the hindsight of over ten years, I realize now that the royalties would have long ago been spent, the sting of any unenthusiastic reviews would have worn off, and those books most likely would have joined the bargain bins with every other book that sells somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 copies. But I still would have had the part that belongs to the artist: the joy of making.
Now, when I talk with writing friends about their own ideas and whether they could end up writing the next Eat Pray Love or Educated, I want to scream: “Who cares!” It doesn’t have to be Eat Pray Love. Even Elizabeth Gilbert herself never foresaw the success of the book. Even she has not been able to repeat the success of that book.
The test of a great book idea is not whether you think some reader years from now is definitely going to want to read it, because no one can possibly know, and trend-chasing is game for fools. It’s whether you would want to read it. It’s whether you want—need—to write it. It’s whether you love it and know deep in your heart, once you allow yourself to imagine actually doing it to your own satisfaction, that you will never regret spending that time living it.
That’s not the smart-money thing to say, and it’s not the way to talk to editors or agents. But I think it’s how we writers can talk candidly with each other. And probably most important: it’s how we should talk to ourselves.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels as well as thirteen nonfiction books, including many interpretive guides to Alaska public lands. www.romanolax.com.