Being a full-time writer is a strange occupation. I work all day alone in a tiny cottage behind my house, hunched over my computer, lost in an imaginary world. If I weren't producing coherent literature some might consider this peculiar at best–or worthy of psychiatric intervention.
Even at night my characters follow me, so real are they. I hear their voices, worry over their troubles, and wish they hadn't decided to do that. "Oh no," I want to warn, while I grit my teeth and let them have their way.
Odder yet, I'm always maintaining a dual perspective, for at the same time I feel enmeshed with my fictional people, I'm aware of my role as their creator and consumed by technical issues.
Take verb choices, for instance: which one will give the most vivid picture? Does Solomon, the father in my latest novel, Mama's Child, confidently stride into a meeting, or does he sidle in, flustered, twenty minutes late to an appointment with the principal of his daughter's school? Does he lope, shuffle, or stomp? Verbs of movement convey powerful imagery, giving clues to emotions.
Despite sleepless nights when I mull over the most appropriate words to describe my characters' behaviors–words in harmony with the kind of people they are–I love this solitary life, creating fictitious worlds over which I have total control.
And then, another oddity of the writing life occurs, if one is successful: after years of happily laboring alone, growing intimately acquainted with my characters' lives over a span of time (in Mama's Child we watch a biracial family fracture and reassemble over forty years), then, suddenly, it's publication day!
Now a whole big universe comes tumbling in. Reviewers, interviewers, readers–everyone has a response, everyone wants their say. My private imaginary world is suddenly a public one. Readers weigh in, opining about my characters, arguing whether their behavior is "justified." One blog reviewer wrote about Mama's Child, "This is a well written and detailed book, but it is also extremely emotional. It will elicit emotion from the reader, whether it be joy, encouragement or rage and disappointment."
Ruby, the young adult daughter in Mama's Child, consistently elicited readers' exasperation. She annoyed me, too—she, the most willful of all my characters, yet the easiest to write. (There must be a lot of me in Ruby, because I found channeling her voice came effortlessly.)
It's an amazing experience to know that my words spark so much emotion in readers, that they're fully engaged in the story. Yet even as I thrilled to hear others' enthusiasm for Elizabeth, Solomon, Ruby, and Che, my Mama's Child characters, I mourned the quiet period when they were my creatures alone. Like a parent who suffers when her children grow up and leave home, it was hard to say Good-bye to my characters. I knew I did my best to prepare them for a bigger life, yet for months I missed them. I missed living in their world, shaping them, attuning to them. Forced into the glare of promotion, I also pined for the quiet intensity of writing.
Publishing a book shatters my peaceful life. I suddenly need to appear on panels, do book readings, and give lectures where I stand sweating, deluged by questions, relieved when at last the event is over.
For these promotional affairs I have to change out of my sweat pants into "work clothes" and get a haircut. Find suitable shoes. Dab on some perfunctory makeup. Think about how to avoid traffic or where to park, instead of dwelling on a new sentence I want to polish.
Interviewers inquire about everything, from my writing process to my motivation for writing the latest book. They tell me how much they enjoyed—or were annoyed or puzzled by—something I wrote. After living so comfortably within my own brain, I abruptly exist in a swirl of others' feelings and opinions, including those on social media. Instead of my day flowing easily, I have to work to claim a calm personal space.
Writers often talk about the paradox of wanting to finish a book we've worked on for years, and at the same time grieving when we finally complete that last revision and send it off. The "free time" we've eagerly awaited can feel empty, devoid of purpose, while we await the inevitable bombardment of the outside world: pub day. A day we eagerly anticipate and simultaneously dread.
To soothe ourselves, most of us do what writers do: we write. We begin a new book, knowing we'll have the luxury of a few more years lost in creation while we structure yet another imaginary sphere, until it's time to release that one, too, into the real world.
It's a strange kind of existence, transitioning from intensely private to glaringly public, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to explore any path my creative brain wants to travel—and then share the journey with the world. Every day I give thanks that I get to live this in-and-out life of a writer.