Last night, at midnight, I sent in the final revisions of my upcoming Dante book. It’s done. What you can’t see on the other side of the screen is how hard I’ve been working on it, under an unusually strict deadline. I’ve never worked harder for a more sustained period of time on anything in my life. I don’t say that to complain — I love what I do for a living, and it is in every way a blessing — but to say that I have not been as productive on this blog as normally because every waking moment, seemingly, has been devoted to writing and rewriting the book.
I’m sick again, with mono, for the first time in a year. What triggered it was some family conflict — the thing that started it in the first place — but my autoimmune system was really weakened by all the late nights and gallons of coffee. The good thing about it is that I know now how to get healthy again: contemplative prayer, and applying the lessons I learned from Dante and from therapy. It takes a while, though. I feel like I could sleep for weeks. It’s hard to express the depth of fatigue this stuff imposes on you. It’s not like normal tiredness. When I’m going through this stuff, I wake up feeling exhausted, routinely, which is a very weird feeling, and a depressing one if it lingers. I wish I could go off to a monastery somewhere, and live quietly in a cell for a couple of months, just to chill out and regain my health. But life.
I want to say again here how unutterably valuable my editor in this Dante book project has been. She inherited the project under difficult conditions, and led me through to its completion. She has worked about as hard as I have, and in every way, she has made it a better book. In fact, she has made it a book, period. I think about the first draft of the book, written in three weeks, and cringe with embarrassment. In fairness to myself, the fact that I wrote 94,000 words in three weeks in the first place is a wonder, but still, they were pretty crappy words: unfocused, repetitive, etc.
After six weeks of incredibly hard work under her leadership, we have a credible book to publish later this year. It is almost like a miracle. What you will see when the book comes out, eventually, will be very, very, very different from the lump of clay it began as. Writing is a solitary art, but writing well requires a gifted editor. At least in my case.
(The reason I’m not telling you her name is because I don’t want to embarrass her. When the book is published, I’ll tell you who it is. Her name should be proclaimed from the rooftops.)
The book, which went through five or six versions before concluding last night, ended up being about 95,000 words, which is a little long for a mainstream book like this. And even then, reading the thing makes me realize that I’ve only scratched the surface of Dante. It’s frustrating knowing that there’s so much more you could have said, but the truth is, unless you’re an author with a big following already, most people aren’t going to read a book longer than that (publishers have done their market research). One thing that rattles me about this book is that so much of it involves me and my own inner struggles, and how reading Dante and applying the lessons of the Commedia to my life brought me out of a dark wood.
The first draft was a lot more Dante-focused, but the small, disparate group of readers I had looking over my drafts did not like that at all. The felt it was too pedantic, and that the book didn’t have much to say to people who weren’t already interested in Dante. To make this book come alive, they said, you need to tell us how Dante saved your life, and let readers make their own inferences about how he might do the same for them.
That’s the book I’ve written, and it’s the only kind of Dante book I could have written. If you want an introduction to Dante, there are plenty other books you could read that are leagues better. The introduction to Dante that I’ve written is therapeutic and practical. But it’s how I met Dante, and experienced him. My hope is that it will inspire others to do the same. Still, I wish the book were less memoir-ish. But who knows? That might be exactly the entry into Dante that ordinary people want and need. This is the kind of book that I can easily imagine book clubs, Sunday school classes, groups of friends, and so forth, reading together, along with Dante, and talking about. In fact, I’m thinking about starting a Dante club here in my town, a small group that reads the Commedia together and gets together to talk about it in a practical way — that is, to talk about how Dante can change our lives. I hope others will too.
I have another book that I’m halfway finished with — a book I’m co-authoring with someone. And I have to give two papers this weekend in Wichita. Plus this blog to write. I have never been happier as a writer, and because writing is what I do for a living, I’ve never been happier, period. But damn, am I tired. I wrote about my sister that cancer is a “family disease,” because the entire family suffers along with the cancer patient. I now believe that professional writing is a family disease. Ask Julie and our kids about what my vocation has taken out of them. Go ahead, ask.