You may have noticed — I haven’t been here as much as I said I would.
When I turned in the manuscript of my book on January 1st, I was elated and exhausted. After all, writing a book in four months took all my mental clarity and energy. It was a joyful task — the most joyful of my life — but still, whew. The Chef and I took a wonderful week away from work, in our own home. No blog posts. But I intended to come back. I love being here, after all. This is not work.
However, to my shock and sweet surprise, my editor threw me a curveball. Everyone I know who was dealt with the world of publishing told me I would probably have to wait a month, maybe six weeks, to receive my edits. To be honest, I was ready to wait. It always takes a bit of distance before a writer can see her words clearly.
But my editor — such a mensch; my favorite new person in my life — did something near miraculous. She edited the entire manuscript (nearly 500 pages in the first draft) in nine days. Can I repeat that? Nine days. She didn’t just read it. She made judicious cuts, extraordinary swaths, cutting stories into pithy anecdotes, and making paragraphs sing. The book I envisioned was coming into existence, thanks to her excellence.
I am so making her cookies.
The only thing that wasn’t entirely glorious about this? She needed me to cut another 30,000 words after her cuts. (We want everyone to be able to afford this book. Also, this doesn’t really need to be the length of Larousse.) Does that sound horrifyingly hard? It’s worse. She needed all the edits — the final copy; the version that will be in your hands when you buy the book — in thirteen days.
What could I do? No use in panicking. That cuts time away from the work. No use in losing sleep. In sleep-deprivation, I’m never that clear when I write. No use crying or wailing or telling everyone how ridiculous this was. I just remembered, again, how lucky I am. And I sat down to work.
On the same day that my editor sent the changes, my father happened to tell me a story. We were chatting on the phone, and he told me about a little Buddhist book he has been reading. The story that struck him most made me laugh, immediately. I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing with delight, the way that truth shoots straight to giggles. Here it is:
“A Zen master accomplished in the way of the bow and his Zen archery teacher were practicing on the cliff overlooking the sea. The archery teacher demonstrated his skill on a target near the precipice by piercing its center. He handed the bow and an arrow to the Zen master. The Zen master pulled the bow to its fullest arc, and with complete focus, care, and attention, released the arrow into the ocean. When it struck the water, he said, “Bullseye!”
— from by Abbess Blanche Hartman of the San Francisco Zen Center (2002)
I can’t explain why this moved me so. I hope you’ll know when you read it. Besides, koans are rarely rational.
What I do know is this — every day, every hour, when my shoulders tensed up and my brain wanted to spasm and everything in me thought, oh my god, this is what’s going to print?! — I just shrugged and thought, “Bullseye!”
Tuesday night, I thought I was done. I had been staring at sentences and counting syllables and wondering where the words could slip away, for twelve days. I could see no more. Nothing else could go. I could not find a single word more that I could cut.
It was time to let go.
As we did the first time, the Chef and I pressed the send button together. Besides my fierce focus and need for release, I could not have made this happen without my dear Chef. He fed me, caressed my sore shoulders, sang to me in the car while we drove, and held me all night long. Because of him, I didn’t even feel stressed. I just kissed him and worked. So we sent it, at 1:30 in the morning, together.
The next morning, I awoke with a start. Something didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel that release.
The draft I had turned in the night before was 106,720 words. That’s 60,000 fewer words than I had turned in the first time. Wasn’t that enough?
No, it wasn’t.
I went back to the official editing letter and read — with a dropping stomach — that my final edit needed to be under 100,000 words. I thought that I had cut everything I could have, but I needed cut 7,000 more words. And I had only five hours.
Thank goodness for the Chef’s hugs.
This doesn’t need to be a long story. It’s already much longer than a zen koan. End of story: I did it. I sat myself down in the lobby of a community center (the Chef had to renew his food handler’s card) with the laptop, and I thought: you have an hour and a half and 7000 words to cut. Go. So I did.
I remembered a line from Richard Hugo: “Kill your darlings.” And mostly, I just kept thinking, as I cut through paragraphs and stories I had so lovingly massaged into perfect shape and descriptions of food I love — bullseye!
By the end of the day, I had cut 7,000 words, plus 1000 more. Also, I had made the final selections on all the photographs for the book. With the Chef on the phone in front of his restaurant, and me in a coffee shop nearby, I pressed send. It was gone. I was done.
(Is anyone surprised that only a few hours after I sent it, I came down with a violent stomach flu? I have been in bed ever since. That’s why it has taken me two days to write this out. That, and it’s difficult to write a food blog when you haven’t eaten for two days.)
Three bits of good news in the midst of this…
1. The book is done.
2. My editor loves it. I can’t write it all here — it would feel too much like bragging. Suffice it to say — she loves my book. So does the marketing department and the publicity department. They can’t wait to sell it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to meet many of you on the book tour in October.
3. If nothing else, I can promise you this:
if you buy my book, you will be reading my heart.