In early 2006, not long after I'd gotten it into my head that I wanted to write a book about being wrong, my agent and I met with various editors to discuss the idea. As different as those meetings were, they had one thing in common. Every one of those editors told me that wrongness was an unusual subject for a first book.

It took me a year to realize that by "unusual" they meant "insane." I loved how wrongness was a big subject with universal relevance; how its story was distributed across a staggering range of fields; how it had no natural infrastructure and no generic constraints (unlike, say, biography or history). It was all very thrilling—and the moment I started writing, it set about systematically crushing my brain.

Nonetheless, I now believe that wrongness might be the world's most appropriate subject for a first book, because writing your first book is, at least in my experience, one long lesson in being constantly, stupendously wrong.

Never mind all the comparatively small stuff I was wrong about—for example, whether it is possible to start writing without an outline (it is not), or how long it would take to finish the book (oops). Two overarching errors characterized my writing experience, and I suspect they might be relevant to other first-time authors as well.

The first error is practical: you think you have the tools you need, but you don't. Back in 2006, I figured I knew how to write a book based on the fact that I'd read plenty of them, and written plenty of articles. Along similar lines, I once took a friend's motorcycle for a spin, reasoning that I knew how to ride a bike and drive a car. That didn't go well either. True, I was at home with words and ideas, but I had no idea how to construct a chapter, or stay off the Internet when I was supposed to be writing, or organize my days. This is what all those editors knew that I didn't: writing your first book isn't hard because you have to build the house. It is hard because you have to build the hammer.

If my first error was practical, the second was emotional. Most people think carefully before accepting a new job. I've spent longer dithering over semicolons than I spent deciding whether to write a book. It never occurred to me to wonder if it would make me happy. It was my dream job; ergo, it would feel dreamy.

In reality, it felt like I had suddenly acquired a pet panther. It paced around behind me all day, slept with a paw on my chest all night, and woke me up in the morning, staring intently. By the end I was pretty much in love with the brute (a writer's Stockholm Syndrome), but much of the time I was wretched. I don't mean that writing always produces misery (there were occasional peaceful moments, and spikes of intense joy), or that all writers are miserable. But I'm hardly alone in experiencing writing as emotionally perilous. After I finished the book, I read my way through the Paris Review interviews and felt mildly vindicated whenever I discovered another suffering writer. I felt mildly vindicated a lot.

Would it have mattered if I'd read those interviews before I wrote the book? Probably not. Just as I'd ignored the editors, I probably would have ignored these writers and their aggregated misery. In my book, I refer to this phenomenon as "wrongness as optimism": the touchingly sincere, hopelessly overextended faith that we will be able to accomplish what has proved elusive to others, not to mention ourselves.

This is one kind of wrongness I would defend to the death. It gets us into some of our most idiotic messes, but it gets us into the good stuff, too, the stuff we otherwise wouldn't dare to undertake. It got me into the book, for sure. When I realized my mistake—that I didn't know what I was doing, that it wasn't going to be dreamy—I nearly panicked: I wasn't up to this, I would never be able to write the book I had envisioned. In the end, though, and to my enduring surprise, I was wrong about that, too.