Thrawing is a form of torture from the Inquisition. What they did to your wicked witchy ass is they tied you to an X-rack with a series of elaborate ropes and straps, chiefly about your neck and head, and then yanked and twisted violently. The idea was to shred all your tendons and muscles–well, the real idea was to get you to confess your bad ways and repent so that God would take pity on your soul. A little tendon-shredding went a long way. You cried mercy. You took your punishment. They lifted your eternal heart to paradise. A noble effort, that, especially when your neck could no longer support the weight of your skull.
Being an author is a lot like being thrawed. You’re yanked and jerked one way one second and then tugged back the other way the next. Viciously, rapidly, savagely, and all for some supposed greater grace.
Consider the following:
Yesterday I read the worst review that my novel The Last Kind Words has yet received. It appeared in The Denver Post, written by a chef of some twenty-odd years who occasionally reviews books for the newspaper. He did, his bio is quick to point out, graduate college with a degree in literature. Small wonder that he’s a cook then.
Let’s just be delicate and say the man disliked the book intensely. Now let’s move on.
You need a hard shell to be an artist in this world, assuming that I, or any author, is an artist, or truly cares about art. You try to do something that has some validity, that has unity. You take your knocks, you get thrawed to the left and back, and then you find yourself at the keypad again. You are battered and branded but you know that’s going to happen. Everyone’s got it tough. Sometimes you can’t lift your head so high for a while. Sometimes your chin rests on the keys until you have twenty-nine pages of XCBVNVMCNBXBCVNVMVBNVMC<X. It happens. It happens more than you might imagine.
And then there are days when you are thrawed to the right and forward. Today I got a sneak peek of the New York Times Book Review’s review of LKW. It’s a positive one and will undoubtedly spike sales, which is the point of the whole fucking process ultimately (one thinks). Blurbs and positive reviews aren’t merely there to build up an author’s ego. That’s not why publishers send out a couple hundred advance copies of the book. They’re looking for sales. I have to remember that since that’s what I’m looking for too, even if my lagging sense of self-confidence or artistic impulses want a greater immediate payback. (By the way, that chef? He not only tore me up, he did a fair job of ripping on Raymond Chandler too. You could ask for worse company.)
Along with all of this is the fact that I’m stuck in fourth draft hell and can’t find my way out. It’s a black labyrinth, it’s a hissing trap of snakes and I’m walking the rim, it’s the pit and the pendulum. Torquemada grins in the hall. I can feel the swinging blade above me descending inch by inch. It cuts the air. It whistles. It sounds almost happy.
So I’m on the fourth draft of my next novel, a follow-up to LKW. My new editor doesn’t much like the novel, and now I’m thrawed brutally again, my neck cracking, my Atlas vertebra turning to powder. Because with generous reviews comes the added pressures of providing a sequel that’s even better than the first book. I think I have. The new editor? Not so much.
So the straps secure and pull. The ropes bind and blind and wind tighter. My minor victories are torn from me. The X-rack is thick with my blood and the stink of my terror. It’s a real terror. It’s the terror of losing my home. It’s the terror of not providing for my family. It’s the terror of failing my family, of proving the nay-sayers and haters right.
The rewriting, the over-analyzing, the smearing of my fear and guts, it goes on and on. I’ve been at this desk for three hours this morning already. My laziness provokes me towards mediocrity. My back is sore, my neck hurts. The dogs are lying outside stretched in the sun. I want to hit the lounger. But the new novel needs me, it whispers, which is appropriate. It’s entitled The Last Whisper in the Dark. Except it’s full-on burning noon daylight out there and this won’t be the last whisper or the last scream. That goes on and on too.
In this biz you are loved and hated. You are patronized and condescended to. You are honored and dishonored. You have your hand shook and your ass kicked. You focus on your fans and maybe they stick with you and maybe you make a wrong move, you zag when you should have zigged, and you lose them down the trail. You look into the empty screen and the empty screen looks into you. You fight your torturers and sometimes you win and sometimes you fail. Confession is good for the soul. You grow closer to God. The blade whines towards your flesh. You try to keep your head up.