We were on the beach; it was July, or maybe August. The sun beat down, the adults lounged, the kids splashed, and I watched, being neither one nor the other at the time. The youngest child, five or six, ran to a patch of smoothness above the water line, center stage. “Watch me!” she cried, and stood on her hands—a real handstand, held for long seconds of suspended breath. Then her feet hit the sand and she tossed her salt-matted curls and beamed, triumphant, ready for applause.
“Great, sweetie,” said her father. “Now do it again so we know it wasn’t a fluke.” Which broke my heart, and also somehow made sense.
Two years ago I published my first book, a forgotten true story of three girls who came to the U.S. from Japan in 1872. It felt like doing a handstand on the beach: something I wasn’t sure I could pull off—gravity defying, public. The summer it came out I was that triumphant child, breathless, dizzy, grinning, fierce. But when the exhilaration ebbed, I could hear that same voice across a span of 30 summers: “Do it again so we know it wasn’t a fluke.”
Do it again. The young women in my first book had snuck up on me and taken residence in my heart. I tinkered with their story and set it aside when things got busy, but they wouldn’t go away. The book came to seem inevitable, ghost-driven: I was just the medium. When I finally got serious and found a publisher, much of the hardest work was already done.
In order to write a book that other people want to read, an author has to be in love. Only love can generate the kind of energy that takes her from first inkling to printed page.
I have been lucky in love: I met my husband on the first day of college; I found an extraordinary story to tell just as enough space opened in my life to sit down and tell it. And I told it, and introduced it to the world, and it was wonderful. My marriage is, now and forever, a happy work in progress, but my first book is finished, the romance of its creation over. And I don’t want it to be a fluke. The trouble is, you can’t wake up on a Wednesday and say, today I am going to fall in love.
There’s the kind of love that overtakes you unexpectedly, and there’s the kind you cultivate, consciously. My first book flowered on its own from seeds that took root by chance. This time I have built a fence around a patch of fertile earth and set about planting a garden inside. The earth is the lives of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneering doctors and heroines of another largely forgotten 19th-century story; the fence is the security of a publisher’s contract. I need to do this again right now, I told myself. Perhaps love will grow.
At first it felt like toil; nothing seemed to be growing except my own impatience. Had I chosen the right patch of ground? Was it too late to choose another? I felt the pressure of time passing, an audience waiting, tick-tick-tick.
I have now spent a year in my garden, digging through piles of letters, sorting them into rows, watering the seeds of ideas. And gradually something has begun to shift. My subjects have become people I know: their moods, their doubts, their seven eccentric siblings.
These days I get irritated looks in the library when I snort aloud at an especially snarky observation, or gasp at a gruesome surgical detail. The work has become something I crave, not because I’m impatient to prove something, but because I like snorting and gasping at moments set down in writing 150 years ago. I understand these women better every day. The garden is beginning to grow, and I love it in here.
I can’t remember what happened to the little girl on the beach that day, whether she performed till her father was satisfied, or rolled her eyes at him and ran back into the waves. Maybe it was neither. Maybe she danced off down the beach, beyond the audience of adults, and turned a cartwheel, and another, and then tried a second handstand, and a third. Not for applause, not for approval, just because she loved the feeling of her own body upside down, on the beach, in the sun.
Janice P. Nimura is the author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back (Norton, 2015).