I have an uneasy relationship with writing novels.
Or, so I thought.
I’ve spent this year focusing on my novel in progress, and to do that, I’ve turned down volunteer positions, writing opportunities that didn’t track with this objective, gym time and sleep. I am not finished yet, but I am on track to meet my goal of a full finished draft by December 31, 2018.
Along this journey, my perception about writing long-form works has changed. My assessment of what I am capable of and what this process means and is worth has shifted. For years, I played up the drama of my dread of novel writing, claiming that essays and short stories made so much more sense for a busy working professional like me to write—they ended, for Pete’s sake!—while my novelist friends quietly toiled for years on Draft 5, 7, 10, 20 of their novels, publishing nothing in the meantime.
Sometimes, they didn’t publish the ten-year opus, either. They decided, in the end, that it was too flawed. Or they had written it too early in their lives when they weren’t skilled enough to take on a work of such magnitude. Or it was a great idea, but it didn’t pan out as a novel.
My novelists friends experience successive periods of doubt, frustration and, to the non-writer, sheer delusion. They walk around in a half-daze mumbling debate about plot and sequencing of their stories (should they rewrite it a fourth time, but this time start with the last scene?!) They talk about characters as if they are actual human beings (You see, she was actually the woman’s daughter, but her mother had to give her up as a baby to an orphanage, so….!)
The one thing they have in common is commitment.
When I was little, I worshipped Stephen King and Anne Rice. I tried to write novels and gave up halfway through. (Shockingly, they were not very good.) A few years ago, I tackled NaNoWriMo as a live installation during which I wrote 70,000 words in a month while the public watched. Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook asking for tips on NaNoWriMo; having tried my hand at it in successive years, my answer was that the only way I was able to do it was to park my couch inside the library and stream my work on a large monitor while the citizens of Seattle held me accountable.
(I realize this makes it sound like I wrote a novel during National Novel Writing Month. Technically, I did. The printed draft is sitting in a large white envelope beneath a heavy piece of furniture where I hope to never see it again.)
This past September, I attended the Bread Loaf Sicily workshop in Erice where I dared to let the light of day shine on the opening chapters of my in-progress novel. I was excited but nervous. I wanted feedback—a teeny tiny bit, more like audience-testing, really—but I was scared that feedback might also derail me. Last fall, I stopped writing for a while due to too much feedback on a piece. Our workshop leader, the brilliant Maud Casey, addressed my concern the first day of class.
A few people had turned in short stories, the rest of us novel excerpts. A couple of us hadn’t finished writing our novels, and to this Maud made sure to separate questions that might spark thinking versus revision-level concerns. She made a metaphor of a novel-in-progress as a castaway’s ship whose sail is crafted from rickety objects held together by duct tape. A strong breeze will not only set the delicate craft off-course, but potentially destroy the whole thing. Only when a writer has finished the first draft can she go back in to revise. When she said this, I knew my little wayward craft would be okay under her protection.
This means that I didn’t come away with definitive feedback, as the short story writers did. Instead, I came away knowing that six people not related to me were engaged by the work and the story to date. I came away with ideas about process after talking with Maud, and more concrete notions of how I would finish it. I left with fruitful questions to consider when I am ready to go back in to edit in the next draft.
The next draft! For the first time in my writing life I am not terrified about the next draft.
While I remain focused on finding my way to the end, and I don’t intend to rush myself, I am also excited to turn around and begin strengthening the scaffolding of the mast in 2019. The leaky holes in the hull need repair. The boat must be waterproofed and painted. I take great comfort in my enthusiasm to do these things, rather than dread them as I have. It’s a new dawn, a new day.
The difference is, I am committed to this work. I am now one of those people who thinks about my characters all the time, working out little things that don’t quite align, creating backstory when I’m on the treadmill at the gym, doing research and discovering that there are magical yet unintended links between what I want to happen in my novel and the actual historic context in which I’ve set my story. In focusing on this major work for the past 10 months, I have created a world that I actually believe in with characters who I care about. I want to do right by them, and I now see that I have the power to.
There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path, Morpheus says.
My so-called aversion for novel writing and my pity of novel writers was actually an expression of my fear of commitment to the work. I have been afraid of “wasting” my time with a long piece that ultimately might not be successful. I use this time-effort equation in my work life, but it doesn’t translate to making art. I’ve watched people shrug and laugh tra-la-la and say that everything teaches you something even if the art you were trying to create doesn’t work.
It sounds like sunny daffiness, and it’s true. Every effort, every experiment reveals a tool, a material, a process that you use later, even if it’s something that you learn that you should never do again. As an artist, you have to be comfortable with every experience being part of your process of mastery. Failure has value even though it results in art that will never make it outside your studio.
It’s true that you do have to commit to an inglorious and potentially unrecognized effort if you want to make art. There are no guarantees that one’s time and energy will result in work that people love or buy. It might not even result in work that works. But you cannot arrive at anything meaningful if you don’t commit to that process. That’s the risk and the dare: to expend one’s life energy and precious time into building something that could fail. It could also be beautiful and imperfect and still have tremendous value.
With these words, I now say, I do.