Reflections on an interesting year
Last year, in the blog post in which I announced that I’d landed a deal for my third novel, I wrote: “I look forward to sharing regular updates here, as part of what promises to be, by any measure, the most interesting year of my life.” Looking back at the twelve months that followed, I’d say that they lived up to the billing, and then some. This was, among other things, the year in which my first two novels came out and my first child was born—either one of which would have made this year hard to forget. Yet when I look around at my life these days, I’ve found that the former achievement, at least, hasn’t changed things very much. Now and then, I get to do something interesting that wouldn’t have been possible before, but these events are pretty rare. For the most part, my daily routine remains unchanged. I still spend almost every waking hour writing at home, and hope to do so for as long as I can. My ambitions remain undiminished, but in one way they’ve been fulfilled: I’d like nothing more than to keep doing exactly the same thing every day for the rest of my life.
Being published has also had less of an impact on my overall happiness than I might have expected. Part of this is because I tend, like everyone else, to adjust immediately to any form of good fortune: once you’ve accomplished something, you tend to take it for granted, and focus instead on the small ways in which life continues to deviate from the ideal. But it’s also due to the fact that whatever changes have taken place in my life have occurred gradually, over time, and as a natural consequence of decisions I made long before I finished writing The Icon Thief. You don’t become a writer by publishing a book, but the other way around: in the process of making the countless tedious, taxing, tactical choices required to produce a manuscript, you change in ways that only become obvious after the fact, until one day you wake up and discover, somewhat to your surprise, that you’re a writer. Having a book in stores makes this point easier to explain to people at cocktail parties, but really, it’s only the visible token of the transformation you had to undergo to get there in the first place.
In that sense, writing a novel is nothing like becoming a father, although we often use the same words to describe both processes: we talk about conception, gestation, labor, delivery. But having a child, especially on the father’s side, is something that happens regardless of one’s good or bad choices along the way. The baby comes when it comes, and when it does, you don’t necessarily have the skills or wisdom to deal with it. Even if you’ve tried to prepare as much as possible beforehand, you’re really learning on the fly, and life becomes a series of compromises and negotiations with the adorable, bewitching, maddening stranger suddenly living in your house. If becoming a novelist is something that takes place invisibly in the months and years prior to publication, being a father hits you on day one. And one of the greatest challenges of these first few weeks with Beatrix has been coming to terms with the fact that I don’t have all the answers, and that much of her future life and happiness is ultimately out of my control.
This is a hard point to grasp for anyone, but especially for a writer like me. When it comes to my work, I like being in charge: every word is a conscious decision, at least in theory, and over time, I’ve developed a bag of tricks designed to take as much uncertainty out of the process as possible. (Of course, some degree of uncertainty is desirable and good—but it, too, needs to be controlled. And needless to say, there’s no guarantee in the end that the novel I write using these tools will be one that anyone else will want to read.) Being a father doesn’t afford anything like this kind of control: you can do all the right things and still be faced with an inconsolable infant at three in the morning. But this is a realization that can only help me as a father and a writer. It’s just an accident that Beatrix happened to arrive shortly after my second novel came out, but the timing strikes me as particularly appropriate. As much as I like to pretend, at least on this blog, that I have at least some of the answers some of the time, I’ve been reminded every day of how little I really know. Last year was, in fact, the most interesting year of my life. But it’s also going to be less interesting than any of the ones that follow.