Excerpt from “Writing a Book That Makes a Difference” by Philip Gerard.
Every writer has a book he needs to write—the one that has been keeping him up nights, invading his dreams, teasing him with scraps of scene, dialogue, fact, invention, idea, image, memory. The book that in some way speaks profoundly to the core of his beliefs, the emotional and spiritual and intellectual center of his life. The book that will take the best that is in him and every bit of craft he can muster.
The Big Book.
It may be rooted in personal experience—Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was inspired by a terrifying childhood that haunted him into middle age. It may be inspired by an encounter with a public phenomenon—John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath grew out of his immersion in the world of the migrant worker in California, climaxing as he witnessed whole families starving to death during the great floods of 1938 in Visalia.
Both, in very different ways, write about injustice. Both books won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Big Book is so close to our heart that its very importance flusters us, makes us doubt our own ability to write it as well as it deserves to be written. The event to be chronicled is large, the ideas complex and controversial, the issues public, the themes so universal they make our head spin. We feel ourselves standing on the verge of something significant, yet reluctant to take on a project so overwhelming.
We’ve been thinking about it for months, years perhaps, the last thing before we fall asleep at night and the first thing when we wake up. We daydream about it when we’re supposed to be doing other things. We’ve lived with it, the great distracting shadow that looms over our other projects. We may have notes, jottings, sketches, even an abortive beginning, tucked away in our drawer. We just can’t seem to get it done. We back off, divert our effort into other stories, other books, other activities outside of writing altogether.
We keep running up to the high bar, afraid to leap.
We know it will be big in every sense—demanding great resources from us, a large imagination, a big soul. Huge blocks of time. The mental and emotional stamina to see it through to the finish. It’s no exercise. A lot is at stake: If we fail, we fail big. It matters that we succeed.
We put it off. We’ll get to it, we tell ourselves. Some day.
It is common—and a healthy sign—for the writer to approach a great subject with humility, uncertainty, doubt. He wants to get it right, and he’s smart enough not to underestimate the challenge.
But a writing project begins not just in doubt but also faith—that if your passion is genuine, if you have mastered the elements of your craft, in the act of writing you will learn the rest of what you need to know in order to do justice to your subject.
As Steinbeck writes in Journal of a Novel, “A good writer always works at the impossible.”