I had the initial idea for my novel, Desert, flying home from a summer spent in the West Bank three and a half years ago. I knew I wanted to write a fantasy novel when I was six, and between then and now, have written 15+ fantasy novels that never made it past page three.
So. This was a long time coming. When the idea for Desert sparked, I wrote a quick thing in my journal and then sat on it for the next two years.
In all honesty, I thought I'd never return to it, let alone finish it, even though the idea of a girl crossing the desert to save her tribe whispered to my soul across the years. Even though I've read more books than ten people of the average population combined, which taught me that plenty of people become authors, I never thought I could do it. Even though I graduated top of my class, got into Teach for America, self-published a poetry book, and got into a good law school - still, I never truly believed I would be able to finish writing a fantasy novel.
Because writing a fantasy novel was my first dream. Because it is the thing that matters more to me than anything else in this world. As with all worthy dreams, it felt so big it terrified me.
In January 2020, I got a LinkedIn message from Eric Koester, asking if I would like to join his book writing program Creator Institute to complete a book draft in a semester. The program featured weekly classes and a developmental editor who would support my first draft writing. Even though Spring 2020 was already shaping up to be very busy (I worked 20 hours a week on top of law school), I have always been one to dramatically overcommit, so I said yes.
Writing my first draft was the most challenging thing I have ever done. I would avoid working on it for days because I was too overwhelmed by it, but go to sleep with an anxious pit in my stomach every time I didn't work on it. I kept hearing that writing would get fun at some point, but honestly, it was "fun" in the way I imagine birthing a baby would be fun - excruciating, deathly, prolonged pain with the promise of the thing you love most waiting on the other side.
The technical side of things was hard. For how much I've read fantasy fiction, I realized I didn't know how to write fantasy fiction. It's not like writing a poem, which is a reverently self-contained art piece. Novels require intense thought and world building over months and months, and then figuring out how to translate the cinema in your mind to paper while grappling with unexpected plot holes. But the technical side was nothing compared to the emotional side of writing this book.
I was wrecked with self-doubt and self-sabotage throughout my entire first draft writing process. My developmental editor (bless his heart) was not shy about letting me know when my writing fell far below the mark, which was basically every chapter. I remember reading his constructive feedback and bawling, wondering why I was so bad at this, leading to another cycle of procrastination, leading to more anxiety-laden nights, leading to more subpar writing. I wondered about the flow state and why it didn't seem to exist for me.
Deadlines approached and passed and I was well below word count. All I could think was I would never get this done, and I had to get this done.
Getting my novel done in one go wasn't going to happen for me, so I re-enrolled in Eric's course. That felt like a huge failure, but Jacob (my boyfriend) was so encouraging. He sent me articles of how it took many famous authors years to finish their books, and reminded me the fact that I was even attempting to write a book in law school was wild. So, I readjusted my sails and made my new goal to get my first draft by the end of 2020: one draft, one year.
And then COVID. On the one hand, I had more time to work on my book. On the other hand, I had more time to not work on my book and create bigger pools of guilt and desperation to send my mind swimming in. But slowly - giving up on myself a hundred times, trying again after some kind words from Jacob or my sister or a meow from my cat- slowly I inched my way toward my goal word count. I decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first time ever, hoping the community would spur me to finish my book.
I failed NaNoWriMo - I didn't make it the 30 days. But in that failure was a victory: the community did indeed spur me on, and I was fastidious about writing for thirteen days. The end of my book was so close I could taste it. Both waking and asleep, I dreamed about it. I finally experienced flow while writing it. And on November 13 at 7:00 p.m., over a month ahead of schedule, I finished my draft.
When I finished the last word of my last chapter, my heart's pounding felt like God knocking from the inside. I wept, calling my sister and best friends to tell them between tears. I ran outside and thanked the moon and wept more. I came inside and everything in me said ceremony, so that is exactly what I did. I set up an altar with photos of my grandparents from both sides of my family, crystal allies, candles, and my reading glasses with my copy of Eragon - the fantasy book that I most love and that has most inspired me to write my own.
I put on my music and sank to my knees, crying and praying and thanking, the spirit of my ancestors and guides thick around me. Jacob sat beside me but did not touch me; he later told me he intuitively knew this moment was for me alone.
I don't know how much time passed, but a moment stands out: the playlist I thought I'd put on either ended or switched, and Frank Ocean's Godspeed came on. I'd never listened to that song in full before, and its sweet words rang out:
I will always love you how I do
Let go of a prayer for you
I looked at Jacob sitting cross-legged a few feet away. His eyes were shut and his hands were opened towards me, sending all of the loving energy he could muster to me. My heart swelled.
Just a sweet word
The table is prepared for you
Chills. I looked up to the altar prepared on my table, the synchronicity creating one of those flashlight memories that you know in the moment you'll never forget.
When the song ended, I rose into a blissful, weeping glow of humble goddess gratitude and started dancing around my apartment. Once I worked into a sweat, I closed the ceremony and smiled the rest of the night. I felt proud of myself - truly proud. The first draft of my love letter to strong, complicated women, and Palestine, and dreams, and nature, and ancestral living, and miracles, and fantasy was finally done.
I've done a lot of self-healing and transformational work through the years. One big breakthrough was realizing I've had a fixed mindset for much of my life, and rewiring my brain to operate with a growth mindset. I do not believe I ever could have completed a draft of a novel prior to internalizing that lesson (shoutout to my Happiness & the Law professors Jarret Green & Rebeca Simon). I believe all the healing I've experienced needed to happen in order for me to write this novel; a prior version of me could not have completed it. And so, I have gratitude for the winding road that led me here.
I begin draft two in January 2021, certain it will be hard, and certain I can do it. In the meantime, I am enjoying the fact that I can even utter the words "I finished my draft." I'm starting to believe that maybe I really am an author like young Yasmeen wanted all those years ago after all. <3