In Between Books: The 'Catch-22' of Pre- and Post-Partum Book Depression

12/22/2011 04:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012
  • Erica Heller Author, 'Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22'

Time stops when you are writing a book, at least when I am. Only one day counts, looms and threatens and that is the day the manuscript must be delivered. There is no present, but only getting ahead, progress, limping along to the next page and the next. This is not healthy, this is not recommended. Living outside -- or deeply inside -- your own writing is like living in a dark, airless, friendless cave. Living in the future while negating one's present is for fools. And in this fashion, I have learned lately that I am surely one of the most foolish.

The minute I signed my book contract with Simon & Schuster in 2009 to write Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home and Life Was a Catch-22, I think I officially stopped breathing. Life became a giddy but mirthless gallop, a race to the finish line and THE END. Writing the book took over two years and during that time, I transformed myself into Boo Radley in order to complete my task. Friendships, important ones, dropped by the wayside. Dear friends got left in the lurch. My pesky wire fox terrier, Lola, customarily the cynosure of my day, somehow knew to take a backseat. Every once in awhile she would sniff around, I would pat her moppy head and she'd tilt it, sitting crookedly, staring and watching me work. "How many pages did you finish today, hotshot?" I imagined her inquiring, seeing the entire thing as patently ridiculous.

It was and it wasn't. Everything, everything was about "the Book," and this was a not unfamiliar feeling. I came by it honestly.

I remembered when I was small, how at family or other gatherings my parents, my brother and I would often leave early because my father had to work on "the Book." The book was Catch-22 and some indefinable, intangible force propelled my father to write it, not the lure of money or prestige or power. Something drew him like some powerful psychic magnet, to sit and write at our kitchen table before and after working (and, whenever he could, during) at his advertising copy job every day, or else in my parents' bedroom. He was driven, distracted, scribbling down the deluge gushing forth in his brain.

Suddenly, during the writing of my book, I came to understand that all-consuming force. It is four o clock in the afternoon and you've been sitting with "the Book" all day and realize you haven't eaten, returned calls, it's getting dark outside, it's Christmas, It's July 4th, the world is spinning and life is continuing but everything, everything is about your bulletin boards with thousands of filled and half-filled index cards. This was my map, the route I lived and breathed until the work was done. In the middle of the night sometimes I would shoot up in bed and reconfigure the orders of things, move the cards around. Then, not be able to sleep for the rest of the night, snippets of dialogue or shards of sentences to write would ricochet in my brain like in a pinball machine.

The road from start to finish was not a straight one. I lost my editor early on. She went elsewhere and I was given another. When the book was nearly finished, morbidly shy and unsure of myself, I announced, like an arrogant idiot, that I wouldn't do PR, any PR, not having the vaguest clue at the time that I'd be lucky indeed to be offered any.

Once the book was published, last August, and I noticed other writers getting attention for their efforts by publicizing them, I switched gears, I changed my mind, but you don't change your mind in the middle of a bank robbery. I manned the phones, sent tons of books and bios and letters out. Expecting, at best, for the book to be ignored, instead it was generally received favorably. I was flabbergasted. Armed with this new adrenaline, I forced myself, how, I will never know, to go on NY1 with Sam Roberts, do a podcast with Sam Tanenhaus, appear on Imus and talk to Diane Rehm and Leonard Lopate. Each time I was up for nights before, seasick, steeling myself, feeling as if I was preparing myself to walk through fire. I did it, and can still smell the smoke. Some people are born to write, some are born to promote. Some are born both and most are born neither. What was I? I seemed to be born in order to worry about that very question without ever producing an answer.

"The book business is an absolute heartbreaker -- I spend most of my time managing expectations and soothing disappointments," my agent wrote to me recently, sweetly and supportively, when I wrote to him in utter bewilderment that anyone could write one book, let alone tread across those hot coals and try for two. Would I? Could I? Will there be another idea, a book that pleads with me to write it, grabs me by the throat and demands it? I have already felt the tug, imagined the snippets of dialogue. Jumping once from the Empire State Building to see if I land on my feet was one thing, but twice?

"Every writer I know has trouble writing," my father said, and then went on to write more books.

Now I see that when you are not working on a book, time also stops, there's just not as much to show for it. The day grows dark and thoughts are aimless, scattered. Naked bulletin boards stare at me. "J'accuse!" they all but cry. I mourn the empty index cards. I am crankier than usual, restless. I have no patience for reading, listening to music, seeing the kinds of foreign films that used to thrill me, esoteric, inscrutable. Who has the patience? Can a mind be racing while paralyzed?

I heard a story once about a vaporetto driver, a Venetian boatman, at the turn of the last century. Each day his boat made the same turn around the islands, including San Michele. He set his course by the campanile in San Marco Square, visible at the time from all parts of the lagoon. During an earthquake on July 14, 1902, the campanile collapsed. That day, as on all other days, the boatman scanned the vista for the bell tower in order to steer his boat back to Venice but it was gone. He was said to have gone mad.

"I hate writing, I love having written," wrote Dorothy Parker, (Thank goodness she didn't hate it too much to write that.)

For better or worse, I have a feeling it's time to get started.

Campanile or no campanile, I must steer my boat back to Venice, where it belongs.

For my muse, Richard Glass, 11/1930--12/2011