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Many years ago, I gave a reading at the Tattered Cover for my first novel All Saints. I talked a bit about the research I’d done for the book, how astonishingly little I’d known going in about Cajun culture, New Orleans in the 1950s, the early Civil Rights movement, etc. Later, I learned that a colleague from CU who was in the audience that night had offered another colleague a sniffing critique of my performance: “Very unprofessional. I would never talk to potential readers about my weaknesses, about what I don’t know.” He also said, “Hollywood will love it,” which, for the record, was not a compliment.
The comments hurt, both the badmouthing of my honest admission of ignorance, and the casual dismissal of a work on which I’d lavished so much attention and love. But the more I thought about it — and I thought about it a lot — the only conclusion that made sense was that the guy was dead wrong, at least in terms of writers admitting ignorance. I believed then, and I believe now, that copping to your weaknesses is useful. Exposing yourself in this way is not always appropriate — confidence is attractive, and no one likes a wallower — but an occasional public humbling reminds you that you are purely human. That humanity is the beating heart of your work.
In that spirit, I offer the following:
In July 2010, I taught a class at Lighthouse’s Grand Lake Writers’ Retreat titled “How to Finally Finish the Damn Book.” At the time I’d been working on a memoir for a year. I’d run into some problems, and the session was intended to address both participants’ anxieties and my own. I couldn’t promise anything close to a definitive solution, of course, but offered a handful of techniques meant to push us all past the inability to complete our projects. That inability is so painful, and so many writers suffer from it. I wanted to honor one of the guiding principles at Lighthouse, that we’re all in this together. I came away from the class hoping I’d helped, at least a little, and grateful to the other writers in that room, energized by the camaraderie. I was convinced that another six months — a year at most — would see my memoir complete.
Nearly two years later, the memoir is not complete. I am one miserable scribbler. I love writing. The project remains meaningful to me. When I can bear to work on it, it’s involving. Good readers, including my agent, have seen parts of the story and offered invaluable criticism. And yet: I. Can’t. Finish. I blame work obligations, too much travel, health problems, the birth of a grandson. Everything interferes. I haven’t blogged for Lighthouse in months because it takes too much mental energy away from the book I am not finishing.
And so, I am using this space to publicly commit to completing a full draft of the memoir, readable from A to Z, before this year’s Grand Lake retreat.
How many of you are in a similar place? Will you join me in the commitment to finish? A public statement is best — announce it here, announce it in a workshop — but if you can’t do that, a promise to yourself will suffice. We have four months. Even if you’ve only just started your book, and even if you won’t be at Grand Lake (though, really, you should come, the place is magic), four months of steady production could change your writing life. If we write or revise 600-800 words each day, in 16 weeks there will be X number of completed 72,000-96,000 word manuscripts.
Wouldn’t that be something?