“I need to finish this book manuscript this summer, or else.” Or else what? Or else I’d hate myself. Or else I’d reach old age and die without ever completing my memoir. Or else I’d just go mad. It was a doleful, desperate litany I’d been moaning for way too long.
On the phone, my friend Anisse sighed in commiseration. “Same. Same.”
“My book is a huge mess. I can’t make heads or tails of it, I’ve been revising and moving things around for so long,” I wailed.
“Same,” echoed Anisse.
“What can we do? I’ll read yours.” I was terrified to think of someone laying eyes on my messy draft, but I was willing to look at hers.
“It’s too chaotic.” Pause. “For real? I would read yours, too.”
“What are you doing next week?”
We spontaneously promised each other that we’d print out our hefty, unwieldy works-in-progress and meet at my house on a Sunday morning. My adult children had moved out, and I had an empty nest with space to write. Phantoms roamed the hallways, taunting me. When are you ever going to finish?
She moved in and stayed for 10 days.
Anisse showed up early Sunday morning, both of us giddy with excitement and nerves. We headed straight for the local farmers market. Our canvas bags bulged with fresh corn, eggs, berries, little gem lettuce, stone fruit, and rotisserie chicken.
My new housemate unpacked her laptop and comfy writing clothes (Charlie Brown sweatshirt, velvet sweatpants), and we met up on the patio, each of us bearing a chunky heft of printed pages. We allowed ourselves several minutes to make excuses, to apologize and bemoan our manuscripts. When that was out of the way, we affirmed, “We can do this. We can help each other to find our way through.” I was afraid, but I was more afraid of never finishing my book.
We settled onto two parallel, identical moss-colored sofas in my living room and commenced to read. For hours, there was only the sound of pages turning and the soft scritch of pens in the margins.
Neither of us were strangers to giving or receiving feedback on our work. We each belong to separate writing groups where we share our writing with others. But this was a different process. In our writing groups, we submit a few dozen pages every several months. Although we receive insightful, generous feedback from our groups, the gaps between reading stretch out, and it’s sometimes challenging to connect the narrative threads over time. It was scary to watch Anisse flipping the printed pages across the room, reading my book in real time. When the silence was punctuated by a soft chuckle or gasp, I was relieved. She was following the story, and I could hear its impact.
It didn’t take too long to accumulate first impressions and a smattering of notes. We decided to take a break from reading and exchange our first sets of commentary. It turned out that we were both grappling with narratives about mothers, daughters, and identity, about absent relatives and questions of family. Anisse’s story pulled me in right away.
At the dining room table, we reviewed the pages we’d read so far. For both of us, it was a relief. It was clarifying to hear what a fresh reader made of my work, the questions that arose, the holes in logic. For the most part, the news was good.
“I like your book. I want to keep reading.” That was what I needed to hear.
We completed another round of reading-and-comments, and then we needed time to move our bodies away from the couches. I’m lucky to live in an area close to a regional park, with wooded trails just minutes away. We put on our sneakers for an energizing hike through eucalyptus and redwoods, and the book conversation continued as we walked. A dinner of grilled sweet corn and farmers’ market chicken followed, and another session of intensive reading. At nine, we decided to give our brains a rest and watch British detective mysteries.
By lunchtime the next day, we’d finished reading each other’s books. The truth was, they were messy: filled with unincorporated notes, chunks of random research, redundancies and gaping narrative holes. But the shape of the other’s book was pretty clear. We could see the stories in there. At the dining room table, we gave each other “big notes” on the issues we noticed, the overall narrative structures, and possible solutions. It had been years since anybody had read my full manuscript. I’d been hiding in a cave of shame over Not Finishing, and that shame had kept me stuck for too long. Now, Anisse was shining a spotlight on my work, and it was an enormous relief. She’d become my personal shame-buster.
For a long time, I’d been waffling between committing to writing a memoir versus writing a memoir-in-essays. The manuscript I had was a jumble of both. Anisse said, unequivocally, “Memoir.” As soon as she said it, it made sense to me. This was both good news and bad news: The good news was that I finally had a clear direction. The bad news was that many of my previously published essays would have to be broken down and folded into the larger story.
I gave her my feedback, too: that her exhaustive research was slowing her narrative down, and it might have to be saved for stand-alone pieces or maybe even another book. Hard but necessary truths for us both. Hearing them spoken aloud was clarifying.
Anisse wrote out scene names and page numbers of my book on neon orange sticky notes. I watched her affix each orange square to a blank wall, and the shape of my book gradually, magically came into focus. “What about a more chronological approach? See, if you put this here? It makes more sense.” Together, we considered each square, and I realized that some of my beloved sections would have to go. I pulled those sticky notes off the wall, like painful band-aids.
“Do you want me to sticky-note your book, too?” I asked.
“No thanks,” she said. “Just keep telling me which parts I need to cut.”
I spent the rest of the day on the book-organizing app Scrivener, so that the structure matched the wall of sticky notes. I deleted entire sections, rearranging and reorganizing. “Ugh,” I cried out to Anisse, down the hall. “This feels like surgery without anesthesia. But it’s also freeing.”
Anisse reported at dinnertime that she had done her own surgery, removing 20,000 words of research from her book. I applauded and raised a glass. We were doing it.
It got harder after that. This was the point at which, during a traditional writing residency, alone in a cabin or studio, I would suddenly take up watercolor painting or endless Scrabble games on my phone. I had been at idyllic residencies in the past where my solitude was protected and supported. Lunch had been delivered to me in baskets. But this time, solitude wasn’t the point – it was all about companionship and the sense that I wasn’t in it alone.
Once again, my book had descended into chaos and uncertainty. The restructuring that had felt so exhilarating was now maddening. I was sick of reading and rewriting scenes. I just wanted it to be over. But now, I had an accountability coach living in my house. I couldn’t hide. At the next meal or walk, Anisse would be asking what I’d accomplished.
“This sucks,” I whimpered. “I can’t do it.” It was day five, and I had hit a wall.
“I feel the same way,” Anisse said. “But we have to keep going, Susan.” We passed each other in the kitchen, refilling our iced coffees, and exchanged pained expressions.
Both Anisse and I serve as writing coaches and editors for paying clients. We are used to encouraging and nudging others. But with our clients, we meet once a month on an hourly basis. That was nothing like being here 24/7, day in and day out. This was intensive coaching. When my energy flagged, she was there. Keep going.
For too long, I had been incredibly lenient on myself. I needed this.
We sat on the patio and worked through the knots. I asked the hard questions. “Does this section on teaching my mother Transcendental Meditation really belong in this book?” Unfortunately, no. What about the 50-page diary of taiko drumming? Again, no, but there was a 10-page excerpt that shone.
Read, fret, rally, write, rinse, repeat. We pushed ourselves through the week, through days that weren’t fun. Even though we had tried to clear our schedules as much as possible, we were both called away to deal with unavoidable Zoom meetings for our day jobs. After work calls, we found ourselves grumpy and tired, anxious to be back to writing. We reinvigorated ourselves with walks in the woods, a bouquet of carrots roasted on the grill, a homemade nectarine and blueberry crumble with ice cream.
I woke up one morning, and the first thought that came into my consciousness was about Anisse’s book. I ran downstairs in my pajamas. “I think that part about Joni Mitchell is important – can it be threaded through starting earlier in the book?”
By the eighth day, we had each managed to get through an entire reorganization of our manuscripts. I wrestled with transitions and vexing questions that came from deconstructing the essays and integrating them into a cohesive story. I had written and rewritten some of these pieces so many times, and my verb tenses weren’t consistent. For a long time, my book had been in the present tense, then I switched to the past, and back again, until the pages were a jumble of “I am” and “I was.” I had changed pseudonyms for other characters more than once. I spent hours on find-replace, on smoothing all the verb tenses. It was a monumental pain in the neck, but it needed doing.
With our exit date looming, we threw ourselves into overdrive. I begged Anisse to stay with me all summer. “I wish,” she sighed. “I wish.” But we had day jobs, and families, and other things that we’d managed to hold at bay.
I asked, “Can you bear to read this thing one more time?” I wanted her to see all the work I’d done, and I was deeply invested in her book as well. We emailed Google docs of our new, reimagined manuscripts to each other. Then we headed back to the twin couches to read, again.
Both of us had accomplished a heroic amount of work. It was as if we had demolished our houses to the ground and then, brick, by brick, built completely new structures. I hadn’t thought it was possible, and especially not in such a short expanse of time.
On our final night, we took ourselves out to an elegant Thai restaurant and ordered fancy cocktails laced with chili and elderflowers. Our glasses clinked together.
“How do you feel about your book?” she asked.
“I feel exhausted. Proud. Grateful. Amazing.”
We had completed what felt like a 10-day marathon.
“No way I would have been able to do this alone,” we agreed.
On the 10th day, Anisse and I emerged from the cave of writing. Together, we had read and revised over 750 pages – twice. We were both feeling a surge of confidence about our books.
What was it about this experience that distinguished it from other residencies? From our dedicated writing groups? From the feedback of professional, hired editors? Each of these had benefited our work, but the 10-Day Marathon brought it all together in a way that neither Anisse nor I had experienced before. The sleepover, morning-til-night, total-immersion had made an enormous difference. We ate, slept, and dreamed of each other’s book as well as our own. We woke up with new insights and implemented them the same day.
At the end of the marathon, we didn’t quite have submission-ready manuscripts, but our books had been given more attention than they’d had in a long time. For 10 days, Anisse didn’t allow me to look away or give up, and I did the same for her. My shame over my neglected manuscript had evaporated. We had found our way back to our craft. Together, we had kept at it, and in the end, we had a road map, a vision, and renewed hope and belief in our work.
Tips for your own marathon book-finishing session:
- Choose a partner whose work and stage of project are similar to yours.
- If possible, arrange a sleepover. If not, meet up daily.
- Try to minimize distractions – schedule your marathon for a weekend or, if possible, minimize or take time off work. Request support and buy-in from your family or partner; arrange childcare if you are able.
- Agree on a schedule and what type of feedback to give and receive – immediate, reciprocal, immersive?
- Make a food plan: Takeout? Cooking? (Note: Cooking takes more time but can also be a welcome respite from writing.)
- Fold in time to move, walk, and get outside.
- Finally: Don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishment!
—Susan Ito lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches at Mills College and is a member of the Writers Grotto.