Andromeda: The Work That Wants To Be Made

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 an Alaska writer friend visiting me at
the moment in Mexico, and in addition to drinking a number of margaritas, we’ve
had the chance to talk for days and 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 bitter or the sweet – the
things we never got around to writing.
Boy, do I have a list, especially when it comes to
Perhaps the idea itself wasn’t fully formed or exactly right
(yet), or perhaps I simply lost, early in the process, the chutzpah and the stamina to keep plunging and stumbling. Unlike
fiction, which can be endlessly reshaped, nonfiction ideas have more of a shelf
life. I have at various times started to write books or parts of books about cod,
climate change, volunteerism, Obama, leisure time and why we all think we don’t
have enough of it, the history and sociology of the American house, my own
experiments with learning the cello and the piano, sprint bicycle racing, and a
year spent reading a century of American classics. (I get no credit for any of
those projects, of course, because I did not finish them. Ideas are cheap.)
Many of those ideas, or the research on which they were
based, 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. I was told 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.”
Gilbert in her incredibly generous book, Big Magic (which I
recommend in audio form), has an amazing story about this. 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 nearly all –heck, maybe all—of those old ideas
were good. I still think I should have moved ahead with them.
Here’s the thing –the new middle-age thinking: 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 for most of those
ideas, I realize now that the royalties would have long ago been spent, the
sting of any middling reviews (or being completely ignored by reviewers) 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.
This should be clear to me looking forward – to the things I
might still make, the books I might still write. But looking forward, I still
get caught up in the false ideas of ego and reputation and possible financial
gain. Looking back, I see so much more clearly. I think we all do.
The lesson is not completely lost on me.
I am in the middle of one nonfiction book project and eyeing
another. One is helping me achieve a promise I made to myself – to become
fluent in Spanish. Another, because it involves physical activity and
restorative nature at a time when my own health is not perfect, could save my
life—or at least help me be healthier for six to twelve months.
Now, when I talk with writing friends about their own ideas
and whether they could end up writing the next Eat Pray Love or Wild or Into the Wild, I want to scream (and often,
I do 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 who can
possibly know and trend-chasing is a 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 might consider talking to

Andromeda Romano-Lax’s latest book is BEHAVE, a novel about
science and motherhood in the Roaring Twenties. ( 

4 thoughts on “Andromeda: The Work That Wants To Be Made”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Such an important concept, Andromeda, and something I've been pondering, too. My current WIP is taking a lot longer than I expected, but the journey has been better than I could have foreseen, so it's worth it.

  2. Wise words indeed. Trying to second-guess ourselves – and the industry – only leads to frustration. Better that we make the work that satisfies, and leave the rest to that magic of which Gilbert speaks.

  3. I think of this: I'm over 60 yrs. old. If I am lucky enough to live until 90, and read 5 books a year, I will have only 150 books to choose from the zillions of books out there. I shall choose wisely; only read the very best (like Behave, which I am currently reading). Same with writing. Love the process, or find something else to adore.

  4. This is the way I choose tunes as a volunteer DJ for public radio. If the song moves me, perhaps it will move you, the listener. Good advice for writers and their potential readers as well. Thank you Andromeda! Will miss you at Northwords this month (?).

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