Writing a book isn’t easy. It takes time, commitment, and money. My first (and perhaps only?) book, The Music of Charlie Chaplin, was published in October 2018 and took nearly seven years from idea to publication. I also spent $35,000 in research materials (books, movies, etc.), licensing photos and score examples, and on international trips to libraries and other institutions to review Chaplin’s papers and music scores.
Before a dollar was spent, it took 18 months to write the book proposal followed by the inevitable rejection shopping it around to agents and publishers. (Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous peer review process associated with university presses.) Dedication and passion for the project carried me through the low points, but it didn’t completely stave off the inevitable loneliness inherent in writing and questioning whether or not I had any talent.
It sounds like I’m bitching, but I don’t regret a thing. My publisher (McFarland) was flexible with the delays in turning in my manuscript and accommodating of the many changes I wanted to make once the book had been laid out. I’m proud of myself (strange though that is to type), and I’m proud that the book has filled in a gap in Chaplin scholarship.
But the challenges I faced over those seven years—personal and financial—have made me gun shy when it comes to Book #2. I’ve contemplated and started a number of ideas over the last three years, but it has been a struggle to make headway.
Idea #1: Gershwin
My first choice was a “musical biography” of George Gershwin’s magnificent 1937 opera Porgy and Bess. I’ve been a fan of the piece since my teens when I caught the tour of the Houston Grand Opera production on its stop in Dallas in the late ’70s. When I first started working on the project, a new critical version of the opera was taking shape (which eventually became a big hit for the Metropolitan Opera in the 2019–2020 season), and it seemed like perfect timing.
My goal in writing the book was to bring the focus back to Gershwin’s incredible score. From the beginning, discussions of the opera rightfully have included questions of race. But these topics, necessary though they are, often overshadowed the music. The more I researched the more I realized there was no way I could avoid the racial discussion. I sunk a year’s worth of effort and roughly $1,000 in research materials before calling it quits. Perhaps a braver writer than I can tackle the topic.
Idea #2: Michener
A biography of author James A. Michener is a project I have started and stopped on and off for years. One of the bestselling authors of all time, Michener was a staple of my reading growing up, with their fascinating historical atmosphere and dramatic narratives. Known for huge, multigenerational doorstoppers, Michener seldom was held in high esteem for his writing. But he was a born storyteller, even if his prose is admittedly not the most graceful at times.
Instead, it was his backstory that fascinated me. Michener was an orphan with a questionable birth and won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, at age 40. He had a failed Congressional run, worked with NASA, and traveled around the world, which fueled his stories about the American West, Texas, Alaska, Japan, the Middle East, and more.
I started to work on Michener before Chaplin but ultimately felt I didn’t have the writing chops to tackle a full-blown biography. Now, with a book under my belt, I felt ready. But after two years (and many more thousands of dollars) of intense research, I put the project on the back burner once again. Perhaps I’ll take it up again in the future, especially since Michener’s papers are conveniently located at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley—50 miles north of my home in Denver.
Idea #3: In progress
So now I’ve hitched my wagon to Idea #3… This new book idea began in January 2021 and has seen off-and-on traction throughout the year. I’m still refining the idea, figuring out the chapters, and collecting mounds and mounds of research. I also adhere to the writerly superstition and not announce the project too early in the process. It’s not from fear of another writer stealing the idea; it’s still in a vulnerable state where any questions or negative feedback could easily derail the process.
While I’m firmly convinced that the idea has merit, I’m wondering whether this too will end up in the trash, and, if not, whether or not I have the stamina to devote years to the project and (as always) the talent to pull it off. (Those writer insecurities are never completely dormant…) But “the course of true love never did run smooth,” so I plow ahead.