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On Writing a Book

Ernest Hemingway once said that there are two kinds of writers—those who want to write and those who want to have written. Most would-be writers fall into the latter category—they want what they suppose to be the glory of holding a newly finished manuscript or hot-off-the-presses book. And they assume there’s nothing to it, as if writing a book is akin to painting a wall. They’re the ones who, when they find out I’m a writer, start talking about the book they’ve been meaning to write, as soon as they get some free time. Like it’s something anyone can do while on vacation.

Believe me, writing a book is no day at the beach. From the moment you move from the what- a-good-idea-for-a-book stage to the put-your-butt-in-chair-and-crank-out-the-pages stage, creating a book is much more about grinding it out than it is about experiencing the joy of creativity. When it comes to writing a book, inspiration is highly overrated—usually by those who haven’t written one. A book is a chore.

Okay, I hear you. If it’s so bad, why do it? Because, when it’s good, it’s very, very good. There is no high (endorphin, chemically induced or otherwise) that can compete with the euphoria that comes from writing a great sentence, paragraph, or page. Writing requires discipline, but once in awhile, you get rewarded for your efforts. And it’s those moments, individually and collectively, that keep a writer coming back to the task at hand, even on those days when it would be a lot more fun to dig a ditch than sit at your desk and try to figure out how to wring one more sentence out of your weary brain. Learning to do that, however, is essential to maintaining your momentum—once you start writing a book, it’s important to keep it rolling, like Sisyphus and that damn rock.

The key to maintaining momentum is to keep your mouth shut. When you’ve been writing professionally for as long as I have—more than 20 years at this point—one thing you learn to avoid is saying too much about whatever project you’re working on. Talking about what you’re writing diminishes the drive to write: it’s important to hold on to your need to tell the story on the page rather than in conversation, even if the story you’re telling is a nonfiction account of an institution (rather than, say, a harrowing account of your years as an undercover DEA agent). A story is a story and needs to be respected, protected and told in its own good time—the more you say while you’re in the process of discovering the story and how best to tell it, the less urgent your need to sit down every day and put another piece of it on the page (or laptop screen).

But now, for me, that urgency is over. Because my latest book—the soon-to-be-available history of the IMA titled Every Way Possible—is done. Having come to the end of the project, I can truthfully say that I’m glad it’s over. And I wish that it weren’t. There’s nothing more satisfying than writing a book—except maybe reaching the end of writing one. The process that has been both a burden and a pleasure for more than 18 months is finished. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labors—and those of my co-author Anne Robinson and the many people who helped us. We did our best to write a story that will both educate and entertain. For me, the real joy of writing a book happens when someone reads it. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Every Way Possible—and when you’re reading it, remember that what you’re reading are the fruits of a lot of labor.

As far as I’m concerned, the hard work paid off: I’m proud to have helped develop, shape and create the first book to attempt to provide a comprehensive (though I would never claim definitive) history of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Let’s do it again in another 125 years.

Filed under: Local, Musings

3 Responses to “On Writing a Book”

  • avatar

    You got that right. Writing is hard work. People sometimes ask me where I find the time to write so much on my blog. I tell them that the reason it is so long is because I don’t have the time. It takes a lot of hard work to distill things down to their essence and really write well. If I had more time, I’d write less.

    I’m looking forward to the book.

  • avatar
    Jessica Says:

    Not only do I look forward to picking up a copy of this book, but I hope you’ll sign it Skip! Congratulations!

  • avatar
    Tad Says:

    The Photography Services Department is so grateful to have played a role in this collaborative effort to present the IMA’s history to our wonderful Indiana communities, valued members, donors, staff, and volunteers.
    Many congratulations Skip, and to all those who put “pen to paper” on this project.

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