Author at work

When it first strikes you that your book isn't going to be the next "Huck Finn," don't wallow in despair. Take a long walk.

Published May 23, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

I know nothing about what is going on in the country, I hear nothing, I have nothing to say, I am a writer locked up with a book that is due on Tuesday, so I am taking a break.

No big deal. Everybody's writing a book. In libraries and back rooms and parents' basements, men and women just like me are sitting at computers with stacks of books around them, legal pads full of notes, Post-its, index cards, photocopies, and they are trying to not answer the phone or check e-mail, trying to meet a deadline. It's like a lingering illness: There are good days and bad days. You go to bed and get up in the morning and try again.

And when the book is done, which it will be, and it's in the bookstore, people ask, "How does it feel?" You say, "Great!" but that's not true. You feel relief, and disbelief, and a sort of sorrow that it's gone and what will you do with your life now? Also there is that long passage in the sixth chapter that you meant to rewrite and did not and now you know you should have. And there is that typo. The publisher sent you a copy of the book hot off the press and you opened it at random and there it is, the word "releif" -- God showing you that no matter how hard you try, you still fall short. Humility comes with the territory.

Writers get obsessed with a project and lock the doors and sit and work at it, like animals in a leg trap trying to chew through the leg, which is not good strategy. My advice is to get out of the house and take a walk, a good first cure for the depression that hits after you've been working for a year and it dawns on you that your book is not "Huckleberry Finn" but you must finish it anyway because the publisher's generous advance has been spent on a new pair of shoes for the baby and she has worn a hole in them already, so you press on -- on -- on -- though it strikes you that the world has a great many books already and does it need yours? And the readers you most want (youth) are fixated on screens, not on paper. This is so depressing you want to tie a rock to your ankle and jump in the Mississippi, and if you remembered how to tie the knots that could hold a rock you might, but a long walk can bring you around.

A long walk also brings you into contact with the world, which is basic journalism, which most writing is. It isn't about you and your feelings so much as about what people wear and how they talk. The superficial is never to be overlooked.

Walk briskly and it will improve your circulation and your brain will remember the basics of good writing: Cut to the chase. Cut the introductions. Cut the agonized introspection. When in doubt, write something that is fun. Read your work out loud: It's the automatic b.s. detector. Write on a computer if you must but correct by hand on a typescript with a yellow No. 2 lead pencil.

John Berryman once said that if you need to know if it's good or not, maybe you shouldn't be a writer, and now, in the last week of work, I take those words to heart. I just want to get done. And when I am, then I'll be free to read other writers I've been saving up. A young poet who is funny and brilliant, and a couple of novels by a friend, and of course I have a guilty conscience about never having finished "Moby-Dick," being an English major and all, so I may fish Melville down from the shelf and think about him for a while. He didn't cut to the chase, unfortunately, and agonized introspection is the ham in his sandwich, so I may put him off until winter.

And now, back to the galley proofs. It's pleasant, not thinking about what's going on in the country these days. (Has the attorney general resigned yet? I don't know.) Everybody deserves a break now and then, and if you can't go off to the North Woods in a canoe for a month, then writing a book is the next best thing. Thanks for not calling. Back soon.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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