Eight Humbling Lessons I Learned From Writing a Book

With the publication of Leaving Mundania imminent (May 1 is the official pub date, but a few large online retailers already have it in stock!), I wanted to share a few things I learned while reporting and writing a book on larp.

1. Geeks secretly rule the world. Don’t cross the geek mafia, because they’re everywhere, watching out for the community and networking like champs. They book acts for the big evening shows. They work in publishing. They teach your children. I can’t tell you how many times I connected with strangers over a few well-placed Buffy references and a mention of roleplaying games that led to genuine offers of real-life help in reporting and promoting my book.

2. Ask and ye shall receive. Or as Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler put it, you have to be “a charming beggar.” Nonfiction writers subsist on ink and the goodwill of others. I learned to shamelessly ask for interviews, answers to elementary questions, photographs, life stories. Of course, this also results in a fair amount of rejection — not everyone has eight hours to spend with you, and not everyone wants to be a part of your book. So you have to toughen your skin.

3. It’s impossible to thank others enough. I always imagined a book as the manifestation of an author’s inherent genius. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Paul Engle said, “a work of art is first of all work,” and hard, humbling (see below) work at that.

A book also represents the input of a great many people — from the sources who provide the storyline to the fellow writers who workshop it to the editors who shape and polish the final effort.  And can we just pause for a minute and put our lighters in the air for the copyeditors of the world, who have an incredibly important, but often thankless job?

4. It’s OK for your subject to bore you. If you spend years researching something, this is inevitable from time to time. I mean, I love artichokes, but if I ate them every day for a week, the monotony would make me throw up. The first few times larp bored me, I felt panicky, and as if it was all over for me and my book. If I was bored, how could I interest readers?

Eventually, I learned to make boredom my friend. It motivated me to find fresh angles on the topic, and sometimes, the boredom in and of itself was interesting. For example, I disliked attending meetings in game. But was that boredom simply mimicking the real world? Was its very existence part of what made the game seem real?

5. Listening is a form of love. And it’s humbling. Just like my fifth-grade teacher always said: if your mouth is open, you aren’t learning. Reporting requires you to suppress your personal opinions and prejudices; it requires you to shut up and focus on someone else — your only goal is to figure out what is interesting about the other person.

At first, digressions on the part of my interviewees made me antsy, though I soon realized that these digressions led to some of my best new leads and chapter ideas. It’s not easy to listen so hard; I wouldn’t do it for just anyone.

6. Sometimes you write the wrong thing, and that’s OK. Many of the chapters in the book started out with totally different content. I’d invest a week or two and write thousands of words on said chapter, then decide to scrap the whole thing and start over. Existential despair sometimes filled the days in between. However, the first drafts worked as a sort of brain dump; I found that sometimes I needed to get certain ideas off my chest in order to make room for narratives that better suited my purpose.

The most extreme example for me is my Nordic chapters. I wrote forty pages of literary criticism, which my first reader read and said, “too technical.” I scrapped them (well, I saved some of that content for the blog) and started anew. Humbling.

7. Fact-checking is humbling. “Here’s something I spent three years working on. I encourage you to harshly criticize every detail.”

8. Publishing moves at a glacial pace. One of my correspondents asked me to ping her when the book was closer to publication because “publishing moves  so slowly that all the cells in our bodies will have replaced themselves by then.” It’s true.

It takes a long time to write and report a book, and a long time for the publisher to make sure the manuscript has properly placed commas (lighters in the air for copyeditors, people!) A human baby only gestates for nine months. Books gestate for three or four times that. The slow anticipation of the last months, when I was done with the manuscript and the publisher took over and made it pretty and grammatical — Chicago Review Press really put tender loving care into the book — have been excruciating, but totally worth it.

Photo credit: Anannya Dasgupta

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