Writing through fear

I’ve said this in a bunch of interviews but: I originally got the idea to write The Warehouse back in 2012. Then, it was a little seed of an idea that needed time to grow, and part of the process was letting it take root, letting it suck up water and nutrients, and letting it blossom. I didn’t start writing it in earnest until something like 2015. And I had three or four false starts before I really cracked it.

But part of the reason it took so long was that I was afraid to write it. I didn’t think I was a good enough writer. I didn’t think I was smart enough. It was economic policy and criticisms of capitalism wrapped in the blanket of a thriller.

I thought to myself: I’ll get there eventually. One of the things I do when I feel challenged by something is, I go bigger. Maybe so the thing that’s actually scaring me seems less scary. So I came up with this idea for a novel, that I don’t want to completely give away because it might be salvageable at some point, but it was a horror novel, wrapped in a memoir of the author who is writing it, and the way fiction and reality influence each other. It was a very meta, very risky narrative, and I wrote 70,000 words before I realized I’d hit a wall.

And I saw the way the world was keying into the idea that large corporations treat us like a disposable product, and getting angry that billionaires are hoarding wealth like dragons sleeping atop a pile a gold while people suffer and die, and I figured that if I didn’t write this idea, someone else would. So I buckled down and I wrote the damn book and when I sent it to my agent I thought it was garbage.

I turned out to be very wrong. The Warehouse changed my life. I was able to quit my job. I’ve traveled to countries I’ve never visited. I’ve sold more books than probably my six other books put together. One of my favorite directors, the first director I could cite by name, optioned it for a movie.

With that came a lot of anxiety. Which was hard to talk about, and that made it harder. I would be at a convention and people would ask how I was doing and I would say: good, but it comes with a lot of pressure. Some people would get upset at me for saying this. Not viscerally, but there was a distinct vibe of: “But you’re happy. You must be happy, right?”

Yes, I’m happy. But it’s possible to feel multiple and conflicting emotions about a thing. I get that this is the “dream” and no one wants to hear that the dream isn’t all sunshine and gumdrops. No one wants to hear it isn’t perfect. So I just stopped telling people that it was hard. They’d ask me how I was doing and I would say: “Great! Awesome! Everything is wonderful!” And they would smile and nod and they were satisfied and I’d go to the bar for another drink.

It was standard operating procedure for me. I was doing that thing I tend to do, which is take my emotions and ball them up and pretend they’re not there. The truth is the success of The Warehouse—along with some other stuff related to my inability to deal with my emotions—finally pushed me into therapy. Which I’m glad to be doing and it’s been helping.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point is this: I put off writing The Warehouse because I was afraid, and that was back when I was writing for a very small audience and the stakes were low. The stakes are so much higher now. I need to deliver a book that’s better than that. As a writer, as an artist, that’s what I need. I need to grow. Even just as good isn’t good enough. That’s not why I’m doing this.

Meanwhile, my agent is waiting, and my editor, and my film/TV agent, and all those foreign publishers who picked up The Warehouse, and now, a whole ton of new readers who want me to write something new…

For the last year or so I’ve been working on a book. I’ve told a bunch of people about it. It was a very ambitious narrative and the world-building was maddeningly difficult. I was super excited about it… but gone are the days when I could decide to write a book and then just do it. At this level, I needed to develop it with my editor. And we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on it.

And we tried. I went through five or six versions, trying to find the marriage between the book I wanted to write and the book he wanted to see. And I’m sure someone out there will be like “well what about the art don’t compromise yourself!” and… it’s not about that. Every time we tore it down and built it back up it got better. But we also didn’t get it across the finish line. There was a fundamental flaw in the underlying structure. Just something that didn’t click. Who knows—maybe one day I’ll have a eureka moment and realize what it was. Sometimes that’s how it works.

But two weeks ago, I was talking to my editor on the phone, and I said, “Well, I have this other idea…”

This other idea is a book I was afraid to write. It’s very ambitious, and it’s going to take a lot of research into things like theoretical physics and financial markets, and the actual narrative structure is really unique. I’m not saying I’m going to try and write House of Leaves, but I’m certainly in that headspace. And it’s something that kept on waving for my attention and I kept pushing to the side, because there was already a book I was working on—I took that one to the dance and I had to go home with it.

But sometimes things just aren’t working. And this book wasn’t working. I sent the new pitch to my editor, my stomach twisted in knots, thinking if this doesn’t work then I’m fucked. I climbed to the top of the mountain and I planted my flag and then my foot slipped and you all were about to see the frozen corpse of my career come sliding down the side. I really was the fraud I believed myself to be.

My editor loved it. He ran it up the flagpole with some other editors and they loved it too. My agent, who had expressed some skepticism when I initially did a poor job explaining it, keyed into my vision for it. Once I did a less shitty job explaining it.

I’m still terribly frightened about writing this thing. There are two specific aspects that, if I can pull them off, will be pretty cool, and if I fuck them up will make the whole thing pretty much unworkable.

But I have to remind myself that I’ve been in this place before, when I sat down with a book I thought I was going to call Waypoint Seven and eventually turned into The Warehouse. I have to remind myself that fear can hold you back, but sometimes you need to let it push you forward.

Whether that means getting help, or abandoning one project you’ve invested blood and sweat into, or just telling the story you want to tell. And even saying all this is scary. I feel like I’m pulling back the curtain on my life and my anxiety a little when my default setting has always sort of been: “Chin up, don’t let ‘em see you sweat, because you don’t want people thinking you’re weak.”

Which might be the problem. Seeing fear or anxiety as a weakness, or a character flaw. They’re really not. They’re just states of being. There is no one in this world who doesn’t feel those things. Some of us hide them better than others. Some of us handle them better too. The important thing is accepting them for what they are, and finding the way to utilize them. To make those things work for you, instead of against you.

I am hugely excited to be working on this and I hope to tell you more about it soon. And frankly, I’m feeling a lot better about some things now, too. The power of inertia. I don’t know why I needed to write this but I felt like I did. For myself. But maybe someone else needs to see it to. That’s the point, I guess. We write.

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