How to Parent Your Book: Six Rules for Writersby Tarn Wilson
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2004
Writers often use the metaphor that writing a book is like giving birth. In truth, writing a book is more like raising a child: both require endurance, intuition, and patience -- and that difficult, delicate balance of focused attention and letting go. Of course, there are no absolute rules for good parenting or writing, but I think six principles govern both.
Principle #1: Your growing book needs your time.
In the beginning, you may think that you are giving time to your book when you think about it often, discuss it with friends, and imagine the awards it will win and how you are going introduce it on talk shows. But your book is too young to care about talk shows. It wants your time. It wants you to sit down with it and give it your full concentration.
Although naming yourself a "writer" sounds glamorous, the actual work of writing can be as dreary and repetitive as diapers and messy feedings: the days the writing plods, the computer breaks, and you must throw out weeks of work. Worst of all, you may be regularly assailed by a sense of how unprepared you are for this work, by how little you know, by the fear that, in your ignorance, you will irreparably damage your burgeoning idea. But it is too late to send your book back; you must work anyway.
The decision to write a book requires the willingness to make sacrifices. As with a child, your writing needs you even on the days you are tired, depressed, angry, or frazzled. To do the job well, you may need to cut back on other commitments: your volunteer work, work schedule, social obligations. People understand that your children must be your priority: give your writing a similar value, so that other people's cajoling and guilting -- and your own desire for mindless distraction -- cannot sway you.
Principle #2: Your book needs quality attention
Your book is sensitive to your emotional state. Irritability, anxiety, or drama can disturb your book and cause it to lose vibrancy and confidence. On the other hand, when you are well-rested and well-fed, when you are exercising, praying, meditating, or doing whatever else you need do to be healthy, your book will feel more confident and able to take risks. Therefore, the time required to take taking good care of yourself is not a diversion, but a gift to your work.
Your book will feel safe and relaxed if it has some sense of structure and order. Like children, different books require a different balance, but most books benefit, especially when young, from predictability: familiar rituals, familiar places, an expected routine.
But if you always approach your book with a serious sense of duty, it will imitate you and become serious and dutiful. If you always hold your book to a strict schedule and high standards, it may shrink under the weight of your expectation. Or it will feel the need to perform for you and become artificial and contrived. Or, knowing that it will fail to please you, it will rebel and will refuse to work at all.
Your book needs to play. It gets tired of always being groomed for some future reward it cannot imagine. It would like to take some wild flights of fancy together -- to stretch your imaginations to the edge of absurd, to surprise yourselves, to laugh -- to get your fingers in the finger paint and slosh wide, crazy swaths all over the paper.
Of course, what you know, but must not tell your book, must not tell yourself, is that during this play, you will begin to see parts of your book's identity you had not recognized before: its rich imagination, its depth of character, its unique rhythms and obsessions. When you ease your expectations, your greed for a particular outcome and are fully present in the play, you may find the very center of the book, which had been eluding you.
The only kind of attention your book should not have to endure is abuse. It will suffer if attacked with accusations of failure or blame for your suffering. It does not deserve to carry your fear or self-loathing. It is young and innocent and did not do anything to harm you. Your burdens are yours, not the book's, and until you stop your attacks, your book will be oppressed. Fortunately, though, your book has a healthy resilience and strong will to live: even when you neglect it, abuse it, abuse yourself, it will be waiting patiently for you to recover yourself.
Principle #3: Don't ask from your book what is not its responsibility to give you.
Your book has its own identity which exists in relationship to you, but is not you. It has been called into the world with its own purpose, which you are to nurture, but which you may not fully discern. It is not the book's responsibility to fill what feels empty in you.
When your relationships are sour or your life feels meaningless and you ask your book to provide for you a sense of companionship and worth, your book will try too hard to please you and become tentative and self-conscious. Or knowing it will fail to meet all your needs, it will resist beginning or will be exhausted by the strain. Your book longs for your attention, but it does not want to be your only purpose; then you will need too much from it.
You cannot ask your book to give you status, make you money, gain you popularity, pad your resume, impress your friends, vindicate you to your parents, or advance your career. When it fails to do all these things, which it certainly will, it will feel heavy with shame which should not belong to it. Your book's only job is to find itself, to tell its story as truly and well as it can. Anything else is an unnecessary distraction and burden.
Surprisingly, your book may begin to assert an identity that is different from yours. It may have different values, interests, and priorities. It may have different politics or religious views. It may be more or less tolerant than you -- or angry or sarcastic or intellectual or funny. But the book is not you, so you do not need to make excuses or be embarrassed. Certainly, you can inform it with your core values of love, respect, truthtelling, but you must let it find its own way, its own voice and truth.
Your book does not want to be compared to other books. It does not mind learning from others, but it does not want to be in competition with them. It has its own purpose which cannot be usurped by another. You may have grand hopes for your book, but you must not be ashamed if your book has a humble career. Perhaps excerpts from your book will be splashed across the New York Times Review of Books or anthologized in a college reader, but it may have been called forth to touch just a small group of quiet people. Do not despair that you have been called to give them a gift: those quiet people in quiet homes are as important as any others.
Principle #4: Let your book mature at its own rate.
For some of us, a strict writing schedule shields our book from inevitable dramas and distractions. However, you should not try to force your book to grow faster than it is able. Your book has its own rate of maturing. If it matures much more slowly than its peers or siblings, you will need to be patient. Fear, competition, and ambition may cause you to try to accelerate the creative process. We all want our books to grow in neat, predictable stages and can feel unsettled when brilliant flashes of maturity are followed by pages of toddler-dribble. But every book has its own pacing and some have much more difficult childhoods than others.
Principle #5: Make sure your book keeps good company.
Be careful about to whom you expose your book and when. When your book is an infant, it needs to be surrounded only by encouragement and love, by people who love it for what it is, expect nothing from it, delight in its every burp and sign of blossoming. At this stage, criticism will only stunt its growth.
However, a book which never receives correction or direction is in danger of becoming sloppy, vague, and self-satisfied. So in addition to clearly recognizing the book's strengths and praising them regularly, you and other well-chosen critics must point out whatever is holding the book back from its fullest potential.
But the criticism it receives should be in direct relationship to its maturity. The older and more developed the book the stronger its structure and sense of identity, the easier it will be to discern which criticism is destructive and which brings the work to a higher level of clarity and beauty. At all stages, you must protect it from those who are envious, competitive, or just plain dull-minded.
Principle #6: You must let your book go.
There comes a point when your book will be grown and you will have to release it. You must plan for this time so you won't cling. The book must move from your home into the world without guilt and without a sense of responsibility for you.
At this point, you must recognize that your book has it own unique purpose, now separate from you. Although you can encourage and celebrate its successes, you must not ask it to validate you with awards, wealth, prestige. At the same time, you must not hide your book from risk because you are afraid for it, because you underestimate it, because you want to protect it, and therefore yourself, from rejection.
When your book leaves you, it is getting married to its readers. It is going to have an intimate relationship with someone you barely know, or don't know at all. You have shared something important and profound with the book -- its conception and growth, but your book will never again belong to you in that same exclusive way. You may feel empty and weepy, but what the book has given you, the humility and growth it has called forth from you, cannot be taken from you.
**Tarn Wilson is a high school English teacher and a freelance writer. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Inlands, and the anthology Hard Love: Writings on Intimacy and Violence published by the Queen of Swords Press. She contributes regularly to the website Spirituality.com. She also teaches adult courses in personal journaling, nature journaling, travel journaling, memoir, and creative writing.