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Last week, I finished a book manuscript. During the last two weeks of work, I spent nearly every waking hour in front of a computer screen, reviewing notes, examining a handful of remaining sources. It snowed, I’m told, and there was snow on the ground to prove it, but I was submerged too deep to notice. Several days I realized late in the morning that I was still wearing my bathrobe. I surfaced for meals and to grab another cup of coffee, but my mind was never fully engaged with anything besides the book.

Peter J. Leithart Writing a book is like groping through a cave that no one else has explored or ever will, because you create the cave as you go. When it’s all done I can’t remember how I got through all the tunnels to emerge, blinking, into the sun. Once the book is published, readers will (I hope) be able to follow my simplified map. What they won’t see are all the blind alleys I tried out along the way.

It would be impossible to count how many thousands of decisions a writer makes in composing a book. At every corner and turn, he has to decide how to say what he wants to say, and each of these decisions is a complex of many decisions: Do I use first person or a distancing third person or a second person address that creates the illusion of collaboration between you and me? Do I add a subordinate clause or start a new sentence, keep or delete the relative pronoun or the article? Do I need a more muscular, active verb? Will a metaphor pay off? Will alliteration distract or delight? If I allude, do I acknowledge it or leave it to alert readers to discover? What’s the key signature of this sentence, that paragraph? How do I arrange the words to make them clip along and finally click shut? Do I want them to click shut or open something new? Do I want a trace of humor here, or will that destroy the rhetorical weight?

That is all apart from the substance of the book. Writing non-fiction, I have to decide on the overall argument, what evidence to include and what to leave out, the order in which the evidence is assembled and presented. There are crucial decisions about the rhetoric of the evidence: Do I write this sentence in bright primary colors or in modulated grays and browns? How much do I spell out, how much do I leave the reader to fill in? How confident am I about the evidence? How confident do I want to appear to be? Many decisions are made more or less intuitively. Others I agonize over for hours, days, or weeks.

And then there are the little thrills of discovery that occur only during writing. Fictional characters and events take on a life of their own and evade the author’s every effort to control them. Non-fiction has its own pleasures. Writing a sentence making one point, an apparently unrelated point comes suddenly to mind (from where?), and it’s as if you broke through a rock pile and discovered another cavern to explore.

This is the process of writing, and it is an almost entirely solitary experience. You might discuss a major decision with an editor or a friend, but even the most diligent editor and the closest friend will quickly find you tedious if you let too much of your hand-wringing show. Time was when there would be physical evidence of paths not chosen, but now that writers use word processing programs most of that is erased, revised, and lost forever. “Submerge” and “surface” are too exact to be entirely metaphorical. For every book, fiction or non, there is a fantasy book that exists (or existed) only in the mind of the author.

Writers aren’t unique. I imagine that painters and sculptors, film editors and composers construct their own measureless caverns, not to mention computer programmers and laboratory scientists. I’m certainly not complaining. The experience is exhilarating, and anyone who spends his time writing, and who possesses some remnants of conscience, will realize that being allowed to write is luxury of a rare order.

The exhilaration is seductive, and can be addictive. It’s one of the reasons writers are so often drunks and dysfunctional bores in real life. Escape is part of the attraction, escape and control. Words strain, crack, slip, slide, perish, will not stay in place”Eliot got that right. But words are robotically cooperative compared to people. You want to see slipping, sliding, and not staying in place? Try raising kids. A writer has control in the cave he never has outside.

It’s also seductive in a gnostic sort of way. The cave I’ve been in existed only for this book. Next time around, I’ll be creating an entirely new cave to explore, which also will be mine, all mine, my precious. Easing back into life after the book is done, the world seems peopled by unfamiliar beings from a denser reality. I look at them as a spy might who has just returned from a solo mission in an exotic locale. If I could only tell them where I’ve been . . . but they wouldn’t understand, and the place I’ve been doesn’t exist anyway.

Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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