Last night I went to hear Cheryl Strayed speak. For those of you who don’t know Cheryl Strayed, she wrote the National Best Seller Wild and last year released Tiny Beautiful Things. Ever since reading Wild (and I am currently reading Tiny Beautiful Things), I have fallen in love with her, not just as a writer and story teller, but as someone who, because of her life experiences, is an incredibly authentic, empathetic, wise woman. She is also, by the way, a fantastic and charming public speaker.
Last month, I signed a book deal with Chronicle Books. My book is due to be released in 2014. This book is different from the others I’ve worked on, and that’s because I’m writing it, not illustrating it. In the end, there will be 30,000 words in my book. Aside from this blog, on which I post five days a week, I have never written much in my life. So I have become increasingly interested in knowing as much as I can about the writing process. I am devouring essays and podcasts by writers about writing. I think it might be akin to someone who realizes they are gay, and then reads as much as they can about the experience of other gay people. I am a writer now, and, in order to understand my own experience, I want to know what the process of writing feels like to other people.
Last night someone in the audience asked Cheryl Strayed what the editing part of the writing process was like for her, and how did she decides what to fight to keep in her books and what to let go of. Her answer was very comforting to me. She said, you know, when you write a book, you hand it to your editor (sometimes more than one), chapter by chapter, and she gives you her opinion about what should stay or go and what should change (and that lots can change in that process from the original manuscript). She said that sometimes you have to fight for the things that you want to keep in your book, but that you also have to balance that with trusting another person’s opinion about your story and what might make it better. And, she said, most poignantly, this is no different from being in a relationship or parenting or life in general. Sometimes you have to listen to yourself and fight for what you want, and sometimes you have to let go and trust other people to decide what is best.
I just started writing my book, and have barely finished the introduction and the first chapter. Already there are times when I feel totally cracked open by the editing process. I am a humble writer. I know I have so much to learn. And so I welcome the critique and feedback of my editors (I have two), because I know in the end it will make my book better (and they have been, by the way, amazing and generous with me so far). And yet, it still feels hard and overwhelming to work on something for hours and hours, only to have it changed and altered and critiqued. For some reason, it feels harder than when I go through rounds of changes with my illustrations for clients. Maybe my writing is more personal to me than my art? Not sure.
Another thing I learned from Cheryl Strayed last night is that the pain of editing a book is necessary, just like the pain of editing your life (your relationships, your work) is necessary. I am learning that owning the entire experience of my life, even the really hard and shameful parts, is critical, not just to being a good writer, but also to being a good human. And I am always aspiring to be a better human, even if I am occasionally a shitty writer.
On that note, I’m off to finish chapter one.