At a recent reading at the Seattle Public Library, Colson Whitehead said of his new novel, The Underground Railroad: “I wrote this book when I was ready to write it. I wouldn’t have been able to fifteen years ago.” The idea came to him back then, but said he knew he wasn’t good enough to write the story.
In a moment when I’m looking at the scraps and beginnings of a second novel, when I’m feeling the pressure of age and mortality, feeling in a hurry to get all these ideas out before I die, it’s good to keep in mind that there is time—and regardless, the work will come out when it’s damn well ready to. And you want it that way. Really.
The two must converge: Your skill as a writer and it as an idea. I think of how it would be had I attempted to write The Good Sister in my twenties, when I’d just returned from Mexico and was living in a friend’s basement, trying to adapt to my new/old world while trying to make sense of the experience I’d had. It would’ve been a terrible book along the lines of my angsty journals, if it had been able to cohere at all.
Sometimes I scold myself for not having worked harder on my writing in my twenties, that I should have worked through the post-college bewilderment via pounding out a book, putting my writing career in motion much earlier than at say, forty. But I know I couldn’t have completed my first novel sooner than I did. It needed all that time. It needed seventeen years.
Had Whitehead gotten ahead of himself and tried to write The Underground Railroad when he got the idea, he said he would’ve screwed it up. So he shelved it, trusting there would be time. In between then and now (and now the novel is on the National Book Award longlist), he wrote other novels—got a little better, failed, had a relapse, got a little better…
A moth flitted about in the light, eventually circling down to Whitehead as if to look him directly in the face. He laughed and gently brushed it away. “My spirit animal,” he said.