I just got off the phone with a translator friend who is in town for a Yiddish festival. Helen has been working on a book-length translation of an important piece of Yiddish creative nonfiction. Since she’s embarking on the publishing process for the first time, she calls me on her visits and we talk about publishing, editing, and the creative process.
Because of the specificity of the Yiddish world she’s presenting in translation, and the weird and wonderful details she comes across every time she researches a piece of its history, Helen’s been struggling to limit her footnotes on the text to the essentials. (I can understand this, because, like her, I too am fascinated by details like how a famous literary editor loses his legs in a streetcar accident, even if it’s completely irrelevant). She told me with a sigh that she’s done a lot of unnecessary writing, and now is cutting with a kind of ferocity, trying to get the down to something more manageable.
As our conversation was wrapping up, Helen said sort of wistfully, “Well, at least I’ve learned something on this first book. The next one will be easy. I should be able to churn it out in three months.”
I laughed, but good-naturedly.
“Don’t count on it.”
I can’t remember who said it (maybe every writer there ever was), but it seems true to me that starting a new book is like learning to be a writer all over again. Every book is hard to write, because each time a writer is confronted with a new reality and a new set of challenges that the last book didn’t prepare her for. Second novels in particular are notoriously hard to write, because the first is often a life’s work, with the writer’s heart, soul and entire existence poured into it. Tanks empty, a second book can be hard to summon. Maybe, for this reason, second books are the real test of a writer’s mettle.
Five years ago or so, embarking on my second book in earnest, I said the exact same thing as Helen: “This time, it’ll be easy.” How wrong I was. Epistolophilia is certainly the best thing I’ve ever written, but also the hardest to write.
Of course, we learn from our past experiences. We learn discipline and research methods and editing techniques. In some ways, I’m sure the next project will be easier for Helen. And of course she has to go into it with a feeling of hope and optimism rather than wincing with dread. Otherwise, why would she ever start? Why would anyone?
“Why don’t you write something easier next time?” asked my mother when I was part way through writing Epistolophilia. “How about fiction? Something that doesn’t require so much research?”
“There’s no such thing, Mum.” I answered. “Even fiction writers do research. And fiction would bring its own difficulties. Plus, if it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
[Photo: Yiddish King Lear by BecomingJewish.Org]