What Are You Writing?

what are you writing jenny hollowell?

In my last column, interlaced throughout was a yearning for second chances. For Jenny Hollowell, her focus lies on a second book, a project that hearkens back to the arduous task of completing her first novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. All of the same fears, insecurities, and thoughts of isolation when writing come back with a fury, but Ms. Hollowell has taken this second leap, and fights right back. She currently resides in Los Angeles with husband, and two daughters. A more extensive write-up on her can be found here.

- Samantha Bohnert 

I am working on my second book. I’m two years into the process and suspect I have about two more years to go. The first book took about four years too. I’ve had some well-intentioned friends express surprise that a second novel could take as long as the first. They’ve said to me, “But you know what you’re doing now.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since writing that first book, I possess exactly one new piece of relevant information: I’ve done this once before. But it isn’t easier. I am finding that my experience only makes me more aware of when a sentence isn’t working, or when a character feels thinly drawn, or when I’m settling for good enough instead of truly good. It is still a daily battle to dig deep, to be clear, and to grapple with meaning in a way that feels true and worth telling.

One of the many destructive trains of thought a writer can follow is that every other writer knows what they’re doing, and that you are alone in feeling lost, incapable some days of rendering even a simple sentence with clarity. This is the myth that too many of us believe: that to "normal" or "real" writers, writing comes easily. That it’s never a slog for them, that they never feel hopeless or come up empty.

Writing is isolating enough without feeding the illusion that we’re also alone in that sense of lostness. I suspect that writers at any stage of their writing lives—whether we have two years under our belts, or ten years, or thirty—are mostly doing the same thing. We’re sitting at our desks feeling not quite up to the task. But if we wait for the moment we feel truly ready for it, well, we would never write a word.

This is where belief comes in. Finding the faith, however irrational, that this will all amount to something in the end. The good sentences will add up, and the bad ones will get discarded, and eventually you will have written something great. Yes. This. Will. Happen.

Sometimes that belief originates from a person in a writing group, or a teacher, an agent, a friend. Maybe they read a few pages and see the promise. They write, “Keep going!” in the corner of the top page, and that’s reason enough to do as they say, to keep going and see where the going takes you.

Sometimes that belief comes from someplace more unexpected. From a painting, a dream, a stranger. While writing my first book I had a chance encounter with a swami in Los Angeles. He stopped me on a sidewalk in Los Feliz and told me he had just seen a vision of my future. This was outside of Skylight Books, and I had just been wandering the aisles, flipping through novels and daydreaming. His sudden appearance—in flowing orange robes, by my parking meter—felt magical, like turning a page and meeting a new character.

He wrote my initials down on a piece of paper to show that he could “see things about me.” Then he wrote my husband’s. “Was I right?” he asked. I nodded, rooted to the ground. Then he said what he wanted to tell me. That he could see that I was having difficulty with a very big project, but that the situation would improve and the project would be completed the following year. Then he gave me a talisman, a small wax seal, to carry for luck.

As he walked away, I remember experiencing two thoughts at the exact same time. That was insane. And oh, thank God! His prediction was mystical, irrational, and exactly what I needed. I needed to encounter the radical belief that I would finish my novel. I needed someone to say that it could be done and that it would be done, that it was a foreseen conclusion.

Now, as I work on this second book, I try to hold on to that sense of belief as the sentences pile up slowly and as my page count ebbs and flows. I’ve kept the talisman that the swami gave me. Sometimes I go entire months without thinking of it, and then suddenly I will. I will remember it because it has been a dry day, or a dry week, or I’ve battled with a difficult scene, or I’ve cut pages that weren’t working, pages that used to feel just fine. I’ll remember it because I need it.

Then I pull the seal from its hiding place and hold it in the palm of my hand. I make myself remember. It’s not finished yet, but it will be.