Write It Sideways

Cynthia Morris: Why Books Can Take So Long

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Debra Eve.  

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail inspired Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 last year. But Cheryl took her famous hike in 1995.

Wild was a bestseller fifteen years in the making.

David Guterson wrote Snow Falling on Cedars over a ten-year period. Michel Faber worked on The Crimson Petal and the White for almost twenty. Helen Hooven Santmyer famously took almost six decades to complete …And Ladies of the Club.

Why does the process sometimes take so long?

I’m exploring my time with maverick archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who lost her eight-year battle with lymphoma in 1994. In comparing my years digging to my years writing, I’ve realized that some projects take longer because they come from “the deep heart’s core,” to borrow a line from Yeats.

We must excavate them over several seasons like archaeologists.

Cheryl Strayed believes this time lapse was critical to her success, gifting her with a deeper perspective. Author and writing coach Cynthia Morris agrees. Her novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach (2012), took twelve years from idea to book launch.

Chasing Sylvia Beach is set in 1930s Paris. The plot resembles Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but it focuses on daring and unconventional women, specifically bookseller Sylvia Beach.

I asked Cynthia about Chasing Sylvia Beach and why she thinks some books take longer.

Cynthia, how did you know that Chasing Sylvia Beach was a “heart’s core” project? Did you ever consider abandoning it?

When we’re working on a major project like a book, we always come to what I call ‘commitment points’. Faced with rejection, not knowing where to go with the story, distracted by other projects, we are tempted to abandon it.

Frustrated, lost, or discouraged, we have to decide what makes this project one we must complete. This is a very personal process. Everyone will have to find their own motivation when they arrive at these commitment points.

Chasing Sylvia Beach taught me that I am more tenacious than I ever knew. It just wasn’t an option for me to not finish and publish the book. I knew that if I abandoned the project I would ultimately feel awful about that choice and about myself. I knew I wouldn’t be the coach I need to be. I knew that if I didn’t finish it, that decision would alter me and my spirit in a negative way, and I wasn’t willing to let that happen.

So no matter what happened with the book, no matter how ‘successful’ it would be, I had to finish it. I’m so glad I did. I can look myself in the eye now, and if I had ditched it, I would not be in integrity.

In hindsight, would you do anything differently to compress the time it took to write Chasing Sylvia Beach?

This is a tough question. Writing just takes a long time. Most of us work full-time and have other responsibilities as well. There are times when you have to be fallow. When I think about the last five years of my novel, this is what I was doing:

I shed my life in Boulder and moved to Europe. On the eve of my departure, I got an agent who wanted me to revise. But I was heading into the world with one suitcase. I moved to Lisbon and fell in and out of love. I moved around Europe as a nomad. That year was very difficult to write, but near the end of that year I had two months of relative seclusion in the south of France. During that time I made major progress, but before that I wouldn’t have had the focus or the ability to work on the novel.

Then, when I returned to the US in 2009, my agent had the book but didn’t seem to be submitting much. Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t as ‘on top of it’. But I was in a major process of upheaval and transformation and that took a lot of my focus. By early 2010 when my agent and I parted ways, I had another revision ahead of me.

Aside from being a better writer than I was, I really can’t see how writing the novel could have happened more quickly. I don’t think it matters that it took so long. By the end of the project, I was a different person. I was able to bring things to the final draft that I couldn’t have brought to earlier versions. Self-publishing was at a radically different place in 2011 than it was in 2006 or even 2009.

I believe in timing, and I also believe timing is a sort of trickster. We can’t control timing as much as we’d like, but when we look at our process, we can see that everything does happen at the right time.

I’ve been coaching writers since 1999, and I know that we all have our own pace and our own timing. You cannot force someone. Life happens — deaths, job upheavals, major moves — and during those times it can be very hard to write.

Writing and creating always seem to take longer than we want. The creative process is complex and humans are incredibly complex. In our minds, we’re unstoppable and we believe our creative process should operate like clockwork. In reality, we’re affected by all kinds of things — our emotional lives, the lives our loved ones, our work, our environment.

That said, I do work with myself and others to drive away unnecessary resistance and procrastination. My clients become very clear about the difference between resistance, procrastination or adding new, exciting projects, and life’s inevitable upheavals that require our attention.

Thank you, Cynthia, for this heartfelt advice.

So how do we keep a heart’s core project alive over the long haul? I have three suggestions:

1. Own it, honor it, and let it lead to kindred projects. Cheryl Strayed penned nature essays before she undertook Wild. David Guterson wrote short stories around Snow Falling on Cedars. Cynthia Morris forged a new career as a writing coach from her fascination with Sylvia Beach’s world.

2. Do short, daily timed writings around it. I recently took Cynthia’s Free Write Fling, a month of 15-minute writing prompts. I used each to delve into my archaeological memoir. At the end, I no longer felt overwhelmed and realized I could start writing it anywhere.

3. Work with a writing coach. As Cynthia mentions, if you’re extremely close to a project, unbiased support can help you distinguish between procrastination and incubation.

In this era of what Jane Friedman calls commodity publishing, where “get it out quick” often trumps art, it’s time to celebrate these slow, hard-won successes and, like archaeologists, dig deep.

Are you working on a heart’s core project? How have you kept it alive? 

Cynthia Morris is an author, coach, public speaker, and avid traveler. She has helped hundreds of writers find the motivation and structure of a writing life that fits their needs and lifestyle. Cynthia has also written Create Your Writer’s Life: A Guide to Writing With Joy and Ease. You can discover more at her site, Original Impulse. I heartily recommend Cynthia’s 31-day workshop, Free Write Fling, which starts again on May 1.