My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sue Kushner Resnick, author of You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me about Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving, and Swearing in Yiddish, just released by Globe Pequot Press. Her previous books were Goodbye Wifes and Daughters and Sleepless Days: One Woman's Journey Through Postpartum Depression. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and has had her work published in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, BrainChild, The Dallas Morning News, Utne Reader, Montana Quarterly, The Writer, Boston Magazine, Natural Health, Salon, and Parents, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and had an essay listed in Best American Essays. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two teenagers, and teaches creative writing at Brown University. Visit her website here.
My First Delayed Gratification
It’s the question non-writers always ask: how long did it take you to write the book?
I’m sure they believe the answer is simple, but they’re so wrong about that. Even without adding the time it takes to craft a proposal, find an agent, receive rejections from publishers, sign a contract and navigate production schedules and delays, it’s not easy to calculate the time it takes to actually construct a nonfiction book. The nature of gathering truthful information means we creative nonfictionists can’t just sit down and say, “This is the day I start my book.” (Many fictionists probably can’t do so, either, if their stories require research.) But we usually have to start twice, once to report and write a few chapters for the proposal, and again to continue reporting and finish writing the actual book.
So to answer the question accurately, one must get mathy: reporting time + writing time x 2 – sitting-around-waiting-for-responses time + rewriting time = X.
Using that formula, I’d say my first book took only about a year of writing time. I “reported” for four months, taking detailed, surprisingly-lucid journal notes during my belly crawl through postpartum depression. Then, with my freshly Zoloft-coated brain, I applied to an MFA program and turned those notes into a memoir that had almost written itself while I was going crazy.
The path of my second book, a narrative, was more straightforward. I reported on a historic coal mine disaster, over the phone and in person, at distant archives and from my home library’s microfilm machine, for about a year. Then I organized and wrote for about nine months, though from story conception to publication date took nearly five years. University presses usually require outside vetting of the finished book before official acceptance, which upped my waiting-around time to more than double my typing time.
My third book is a hybrid of hybrids. It’s a reported memoir, an autobiographical biography, and a historical call to action. It took fifteen-and-a-half years to write.
15 and a 1/2.
Okay, so there was downtime. Enough, in fact, to start and finish those other two books, to work as a newspaper reporter, and to consider dumping the literary life for nursing or social work several times.
I was getting over the postpartum depression when I took the first note of what would become the long-gestating You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish. As is evident from the cumbersome subtitle, a lot went on between note one and final acknowledgements for the finished product. Not counting all the personal adventures my subject, Aron, and I experienced together, there was also an entire proposal that went in a different direction, followed by an entire set of rejections from impressive publishers. There was boxing up the teeny cassette tapes and steno notepads and stowing the carton in my attic, though even after that surrender I continued to take notes and write anecdotes about Aron. He regularly asked me how the book about him was coming along. I regularly told him this: I’m still working on it, but I don’t know what to say about you.
You see, I knew I had a story. I just had no idea what that story was. I did, however, recognize that I was still in the midst of whatever I’d eventually write about. Improbably, as I went from my early 30s to my late 40s, I gained the patience and perspective to wait it out.
“The end hasn’t happened yet,” I’d tell people when they asked me about “the book on the old man.”
And then it did. As I drove to Aron’s deathbed, I figured out the story. It wasn’t the end of his life that showed me what I needed to say. It was the imminent end of our long relationship that crystallized the story. I wasn’t writing a book about him after all. I was writing a book about myself and how knowing him had changed me. Hence the biography became a memoir.
He died. I arranged the funeral. Then I started to write. I vowed to finish the book even if no one but myself published it. Maybe that faith in the story is what led me to a wonderful new agent, who found me a wonderful editor, who happened to be the editor of the postpartum book. I’d written a scene that included Aron in that book; the editor had no idea I’d continued to follow him for so many years.
If she’d told me when we first worked together that I’d eventually publish a whole book about Aron, but that it would take until my baby was old enough to drive before I saw it in print, I wouldn’t have listened. I have the attention span of a muffin, so I would have doubted I could wait that long for anything.
Yet here I am, ready to answer the inevitable question.
How long did it take me to write this book?
As long as it needed to.