Written in Stone, One Year Later

When Written in Stone came out this time last year, people kept asking me how it felt to publish a book. I didn’t know what to say. The honest answer was that it didn’t feel like anything. I think I mostly just shrugged and mumbled something like “It’s alright.” I was an unknown author with a first-time nonfiction book about a subject that there are plenty of other titles about by more distinguished writers – I was still a little surprised that anyone had let me write a book at all! I had no idea whether people would like the book, hate it, or – my biggest worry – ignore it altogether. My general attitude at the time was “Well, let’s see how this goes.”

But composing Written in Stone really did change my life. I just didn’t recognize that immediately. Somewhere in the four years I spent researching and churning out awful early drafts I became a science writer. Have a primate spend enough time hammering away at a keyboard and something decent is bound to come out eventually, right?

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the transmutation occurred. It’s not as if Rebecca Skloot, Carl Zimmer, Deborah Blum, and Ed Yong showed up at my door and said “You’re part of the club now. Rule one – don’t talk about the science writer club. The penalty is death by zombifying fungus (Carl and Ed picked that one).” The metamorphosis was cryptic, although the change could not have happened without outside input and assistance. Thanks to the kindness of Ed Yong, the tireless efforts of my agent Peter Tallack, and the confidence of my editor Erika Goldman at Bellevue Literary Press, I went from someone who always wanted to write a book to someone who was actually writing a book.

After the initial period of thinking “Oh shit, people are actually expecting me to write something good” passed, I got down to work. Three chapters were virtually completed by the time the proposal was accepted by Bellevue. I wrote the rest between the beginning of October and December 24th, 2009. I remember the exact date I sent in the completed draft because that was the day my in-laws were arriving to stay for Christmas. There’s nothing like knowing the next week is going to be lost to entertaining visiting family members to kick your ass into gear when you’re almost finished with a manuscript.

Edits on Written in Stone went back and forth during the spring. The cuts were many, but none were terribly deep. By the end of March everything was completed. I guess that’s why seeing the book finally published was so strange. A book gestates and develops for months and years, but those last crucial steps when what was once abstract comes into dead-tree existence are hidden from the author. You move on to other things during the time the book is in production – primarily “What’s the next book going to be about?” – and by time the book is published you’re no longer in the same mindset as when you finished that last edit. That, and the book goes from a private thing to a public entity. Readers, writers, editors, and critics can now see this thing that has primarily lived on your hard drive and red-ink-stained hard copies up until now. To roughly borrow Alan Grant’s conclusion about the intermingling of dinosaurs and people in Jurassic Park – I didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response, mostly because I didn’t share the same faith in my abilities as some of the people who helped turn the book into a tangible thing. I couldn’t help it.

I’m starting to get anxious all over again. In May I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah after a 28-year stint in the boring confines of suburban New Jersey. After taking a month to get my new life in order, I spent almost the entire summer chasing dinosaurs and the people who study them. The main reason was to do research for my next book, A Date With a Dinosaur, but prospecting and digging in the Mesozoic strata of the American west was something I had always wanted to do. (And that I am going to keep doing.) The little map in the photo album of my iPhone tells the tale – from June through September, I traveled from Ekalaka, Montana to Petrified Forest, Arizona and lots of places in-between. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. But now I have to pivot from the research phase to the “I’m going to finish this manuscript even if it kills me” phase. The transition has not been especially graceful. In fact, the process is not unlike prospecting for fossils. You comb over the outcrops of your own writing to look for anything interesting worth excavating further. Some days you find something with potential, and others you find absolutely nil and just want to call it a day. (I know this is about the third metaphor I’ve used in this post – like I have said, I certainly have room to improve as a writer.)

I should feel fairly confident by now. Though not a blockbuster by any means, Written in Stone received almost universally positive reviews and catalyzed my transition from a hobbyist science fan to a professional writer. There are some things I would change if I had to write the book again, but I think the book came out fairly well for a first effort. I know that the people who have said they enjoyed the book aren’t just messing with my head. Plus, I’m working on my second book. I must be at least moderately skilled to convince another publisher that my voice is one worth hearing.

But here’s the thing. I don’t feel very confident. There is actually very little of my own writing that I am proud of. Ask me to send you the article, post, or book chapter I feel best represents my work and I will draw an genuine blank. Most of what I have written makes me wince, or, since so much of what I do is on the web, immediately click over to icanhascheezburger.com so the cute kitties will ease my embarrassment at my own writing. (“Aww! She has some string!”) This isn’t a new thing in my life. I have never been able to internalize praise very well. I should be able to look at the glowing blurbs on Written in Stone from the likes of Niles Eldredge, Ann Gibbons, Carl Zimmer, Neil Shubin, etc. and feel proud, but it is difficult for me to suppress that voice which says “Yeah, well they don’t really know how terrible you really are at this.” Maybe that part of my inner self could be friends with Allie Brosh’s – I’m almost certain they’d get along.

The way I have previously described the feeling to friends is “being the dumbest of the smart kids.” That’s the way I felt through most of high school and college. I’d be in the AP classes, or others populated by the most brilliant people in the school, but I wouldn’t perform nearly as well as them. I was barely good enough to make it into the intellectual top tier, and I certainly wasn’t sharp enough to compete with them. I concluded that I was mediocre at everything – there always seemed to be at least one person who was remarkably better at any given task or skill. Comedian Mike Birbiglia concisely encapsulated the way I felt then – and often feel now – in his book Sleepwalk With Me:

I was a big dreamer and never particularly good at anything – a real dilemma. I wasn’t terrible. I was just… okay. If you’re terrible you can write everybody off, like, “I don’t know what the hell those idiots are doing?” I knew what those idiots were doing. And I knew that they did it better than me.

That feeling feeds a weird cycle of arrogance and self-disappointment in me. “I can tell that story better than those people!”, I tell myself. Then I try and feel like I could have done better. That’s a feeling I can’t shake, but, strangely enough, never being satisfied with my own work keeps me going. I want to become a better writer. I want to get to the point where I can re-read something I wrote weeks, months, or years ago and not cringe once during every paragraph. I know the kind of self-disappointment I regularly feel is never going to entirely go away – I can detect the sensitive topography of bumps and jilts and mistakes in my work while readers may miss it – but I am trying to turn that into something positive. I may be down on myself, but I’m not going to give up. Now, if you will pardon me, I have another book to write.

Top Image: Allosaurus – the state fossil of Utah – in the new dinosaurs exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Photo by the author.

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