When we read a really great book, the flow of the prose is so effortless, the pacing of the plot so engaging and the characterization so pitch-perfect that we rarely stop to think about the mechanics of it all. And it’s not our job, as readers, to consider the process of the writing or to consider really, anything that happened before all those delicious words got into our hands.
But it is very possible that when we finally turn the last page we think, with breathless wonder, how did she do it? How did the author so masterfully transport us into a new world that we didn’t even realize we had traveled there? In the hands of a skilled author, this transition is magic. And in the hands of a skilled author, we often will have had no idea that transporting us to that magical space did not always begin as such a smooth ride.
We know many anecdotes of famous writers persevering through early rejection—J.K. Rowling received a no thanks from at least a dozen publishers before someone took a chance on Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was rejected 26 times.
Wild may have become a wildy-successful book with a blockbuster movie adaptation to boot, but for author Cheryl Strayed, the writing process was emotionally and financially draining. She was on the verge of losing her home and was $85,000 in debt before she sold her memoir.
Writing can take an emotional toll on an author, as Pam Jenoff reflects while discussing 2017’s The Orphan’s Tale. It’s “the book that broke me,” she says, adding that she is only half-joking. The story takes place during World War II, and includes elements that are historically accurate—and heartbreaking. To write realistically and with enough depth, Jenoff had to picture the events as if her own family was experiencing them, which she said was often too painful to think about.
And sometimes, the toll an author pays is even greater. For Michelle McNamara, the process of writing her true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, came to a tragic halt when she died in her sleep in 2016. Fixated on her subject matter, Ms McNamara suffered from anxiety, exhaustion and nightmares stemming from her work. The night she passed away, the author had taken anti-anxiety and pain medications that, combined with an undiagnosed heart ailment, contributed to her death. Her book, which was completed and published posthumously, reflects her obsession with identifying and catching the “Golden State Killer” (as she dubbed him) and putting to rest a 40-year reign of terror that haunted so many, including the author. “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now,” she wrote before she died.
For so many authors, the journey to publication is fraught with challenges. And even when the road is seemingly smooth, there are the hurdles of self-doubt to overcome even before pen is put to paper. For horror master Stephen King, who has overcome many obstacles in his personal and professional life, the challenges of writing are nonetheless succinct—and universal.
“The scariest moment,” he writes, “is always just before you start.”