We are so pleased to introduce you to WU’s newest contributor, a master wordsmith and bestselling novelist, Marisa de los Santos! This also marks release day for Marisa’s latest novel, I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. Learn more about Marisa on her bio page, and through her exquisite essay. Enjoy!
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.” – George Orwell
Confession: I have never been a tortured writer.
It even took me a surprisingly long time to realize that I shouldn’t tell people this, that not finding writing grueling and painful marked me, in the eyes of some, as inauthentic, a lightweight. I managed to stay oblivious to this fact all the way through graduate school—which, if you’ve ever been to graduate school, you’ll realize is especially uncanny–and well after I had published my first novel. I think maybe that’s because it took years—and at least two books—for me to be authentic in my own eyes, to fully identify myself as a real, working writer, someone to whom the rules and expectations for writers might actually apply.
It’s not that I don’t find writing hard. Of course, apart from those rare, rare, vanishingly rare hours (or minutes, more like minutes) when it feels as if angels are dropping whole paragraphs into my lap, it is hard, every single sentence, every single day. But mostly it is the kind of hard I welcome; the kind of hard that makes a thing—I’m just going to say it—fun.
And this lack of suffering is also not about arrogance. It really isn’t. I don’t set out writing with the idea that everything I do is going to be a brilliant success. But I also don’t set out thinking it’s likely to be a failure, either. The truth is that, when I’m writing, I don’t think about things like success or failure or brilliance (brilliance, are you kidding?) at all. I think about these things at other times; I am pretty much a champ at being riddled with self-doubt. But never while I’m writing. Writing is just too personal to have anything to do with success or failure. Writing is me sitting smack in the middle of my story, with my characters all around me, making sentences.
And making sentences is joy. Choosing and discarding words, ordering and re-ordering them, listening to them chime or murmur or slice or bang together like rocks, achieving the right combination of vowel sounds, cringing at a hard “d,” substituting a muffled “m,” making the string of words evoke an image, a mood, a meaning, and, most importantly, making the words tell the characters’ story, the characters’ true and only story, telling that one true story sentence by sentence. I love this. I exult in this. I live inside this.
But even as I write these things down, I see that I need to amend it all, beginning with that very first sentence because the truth is that I had never been a tortured writer. Making sentences was joy. I always did love it, until the year I wrote I’ll Be Your Blue Sky.
It was a bad year, the kind of year that shakes your foundations.
My son was a junior in high school, and, although he had been dealing with generalized anxiety since early childhood, that year, it blew up, took over. In school, he watched a video about Abu Ghraib and was haunted—stalked—by nightmarish images of men with bags over their heads, of soldiers not much older than he was committing vicious acts, and, worse, by the terror that that capacity for cruelty might exist inside of him, too. He would get up and leave classrooms, unable to breathe, and, at home, would pace around the living room, my bright, hopeful, kind kid, the most empathic person I know, waving his hands, grinding them against his eyes, wanting to erase the horror and the panic. This went on for months.
My daughter, my funny, born-under-a-lucky-star beauty, suffered the kind of searing betrayal by a beloved friend that breaks your heart and sends you reeling, especially when you’re fourteen. She cried every day, didn’t want to eat or go to the school she’d always adored, and her lifelong disordered relationship with sleep tipped over into an intractable, wild-eyed insomnia and a deep fear of being alone at night. This, too, went on for months.
It was the year that my mother’s progressive multiple sclerosis went from being the constant enemy encroaching on her life to being her life, the central fact of her. Because my father was sure she was going to die very soon, my sister and I made a weeklong trip to the Philippines, where my parents lived, to see her one last time. We found her skeletal, waxen, bedridden, in a space outside of speech, maybe outside of any human connection. I hoped not. We held her hand and talked to her and told ourselves that she knew we were there, but we will never know if this was true.
I understand that other people endure worse tragedies every day. I understand that my sorrow at all of it was nothing but the flip side of the incalculable luck of having people to love. I also know that, for me, this was the year everything became too much. I went to bed and woke up with the fact that my people were in pain and I was helpless to heal them.
And I had to write a book. I did not want to. I was foggy, exhausted, sad. For the first time, I had lost interest in reading. My imagination felt flat as a dead snake in the road. But I had a contract. We needed the income. I had to write the damned book. So every day, resentfully, I would sit down at my desk and work. If you think I am going to say that the process was therapeutic, restorative, a welcome distraction, I am not. I sat down in bitterness and got up in exhaustion. I am sure there were light-filled moments, clarity, transport. But mostly not.
What made it harder was that I believed in the book. I felt all the usual tenderness toward my characters, every single one of them. And I was sure that I was screwing up their story. How could I not be? I had associated writing with joy for as long as I could remember, and I could not imagine how a heartsick, dispirited person, a person who had to force herself to write, could write a good book. Every day, when I closed my laptop, it was all I could do not to slam it shut.
But I learned a weird, unexpected truth: you do not have to love the writing to do a good job at it.
My children recovered. With help, they shoved aside their fears and fell back in love with their worlds.
My poor, sweet mother did not recover, and she lived longer than I thought anyone in such a state should have to, but the memories of who she had been—vital, laughing, book-loving, fiercely loyal—her gestures, the way her hair grew, the meals she would cook when I was a kid, her collection of ragtag stray cats she loved unreservedly: these images came back to me and they stood next to, and in the end, outnumbered, outweighed, out-everythinged the image of the silent, inward-turned woman on the bed.
I emerged, too, into my sacred, ordinary, joy-scattered, word-blessed life. And when I got there, I read my book, and in bewildered astonishment, I found that it was the book I had wanted to write, or as close as any book I write ever comes to being the fulfillment of my hopes for it. I cried with gratitude. I held sentences up to the light and wondered at them, at how a joyless, sapped woman had managed to bring them to life.
I think what happened is that when joy failed me, commitment took over. Commitment to language and music, to structure and clarity and punctuation and timing, commitment to my characters. It is better to be happy, of course, but being a mother or daughter or wife or friend isn’t always joyful, either. Still, we dig in and stay–through panic and pacing and sleeplessness and terrible stillness–and we honor our commitment to do our best by the people the universe has given us to love. Same with the work.
Same with the work.
How does your emotional state affect your writing? Do you think it’s possible to separate your writing self from your living self? How do you approach writing when you don’t feel like doing it?