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The tao of novel writing

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If you didn’t know the world is halfway through National Novel Writing Month. There are over 303,000 novelists registered on the site. The site gives you the ability to connect with other writers and get “pep talks,” which I hope would include Brian Cox from “Adaptation” screaming at the top of his lungs to tell you how fucking stupid you are. According to the Wikipage “by 2010 over 200,000 people signed up and 2,872,682,109 words were written.”

It would be easy to deride the project, for the last thing the world needs are more shitty novelists. For as Flannery O’Connor famously quipped, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

I thought of Novel Writing Month the other day when I finished writing my second book. It ended up 45,000-words in length, which was my goal. It is my second finished novel, though I will say this is where the fun begins. I can’t speak for my fellow writers on the NNWM site—and they are all writers in my eyes—but the rewriting process is the easy part, the part where adding and subtracting separates, as it were, the writers from the hacks.

Callous hack

I might be one of those hacks.

I have, after all, failed to find a publisher for my first novel and none of my short stories have found their way into a reputable journal. Of course “they” often say that rejection letters are the name of the game. I’ve had my share, mostly the form letter variety, typed up 10 years ago by an intern and likely sent off by interns ever since.

It’s cold and terrible, but that’s part of the game, too. It’s full of losing and you’d better get used to it. I wanted to believe that after a few rejections the community would open up. I wanted to believe that behind the scenes there were about a dozen people who got together and drank Scotch and discussed some of the new writers they would eventually let into their group.

“No one can really tell the beginning writer whether or not he has what it takes. Most people the young writer asks aren’t qualified to judge. They may have impressive positions, even fame, but it’s a law of the universe that 87 percent of all people in all professions are incompetent.” John Gardner, “On Becoming A Novelist”

It’s quite obvious that I’m no spring chicken, not in the sense of being a human being or a writer. On the wrong side of 35, I had one friend tell me once that “If it was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now.”

To some degree I agree with his assessment. But then I start to think about my first writing efforts. The slow progression from simply wanting to be a writer to actually becoming one and I place this person and their opinion of my writing squarely in the “incompetent” category.

Writing is a slow and brutal process, one that, as Gardner also noted in his brilliant Bible for writers, “does not spring into the world full grown, like Athena.”

And, for this alone, I hold out hope.

My process

The whole idea of this post was to be as candid as possible about my writing. Though I take a lot of grief from friends for being a “failed writer”—I assure them that all writers are essentially failures—I continue to plug away at writing. Having decided long ago that I would either succeed or compile so much shitty writing that someone would be forced to read it, my career path has suffered for it.

I shrug when others talk about retirement plans and continue with the process. When I first started writing, like most young writers, I think the romanticism of it was what appealed to me. If a balding goofy-looking Arthur Miller could bag Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway could tramp and scamp  all over Europe and Africa, the writer’s life represented the perfect after-college plan.

I realized soon after college that writing was certainly about lifestyle, but not the one I had assumed. I hate to beat a dead horse here, but Gardner, again in his infinite wisdom, hits the nail on the head by saying, ”it’s the sheer act of writing more than anything else, that makes a writer.”

I had to first start writing before I could call myself a writer. And it was one tough lesson after another, teaching myself to sit in front of a computer and slam away at the keys even when the ideas weren’t there. Setting aside time became my major issue. But as a bartender, I grew comfortable with nocturnal hours and have written at night ever since. At least one hour almost every evening for the last 18 years of my life I’ve spent typing. Now this doesn’t take into account the evenings I spend with friends getting hammered or nights I sit and re-watch “Half Baked” and get baked, but it’s a schedule I strive to keep.

It’s what the NNWM folks stress and there’s a reason, since I believe it’s the essential part in the process. All else ceases to matter in the face of actually working on a piece. Just as a painter cannot finish a painting without picking up the brush, a writer can’t finish a piece of writing without hitting the keys—or using a pen a la Charles Bukowski, which I cannot endure due to arthritis. 1

Though most writers will tell you all sorts of essential parts of writing—outlining, reading, rewriting, researching, digging through a thesaurus, smoking grass, eating a small bowl of pecans, 2 drinking Scotch 3—I’m inclined to believe that if I simply write all those other things will follow behind me like Adderal-ladened lemmings. Sitting down to write on a schedule probably sounds like work because that’s exactly what it is. This is when most people give-up, deciding it is easier to believe they cannot write than to believe that it takes work to become better.

I’m not under any grand illusions. I’m no William Faulkner, and David Foster Wallace, if he were alive, would chuckle sadly knowing that I have to lookup the word “eschatology” every time I see it. But I know enough about writing to know you can improve if you keep doing it. Just as the ideas will compile themselves the more you’re willing to experience life, so too will the talent creep in if you’re willing to work. As Alexander Pope said, “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/As those move easiest who have learned to dance.”

It took me four years to finish my first novel. I hated every moment of it and by the end I never wanted to see it again. 4 It’s a strange post-modern allegorical satire—it might be a satirical allegory—that is drenched with allusions and hidden meanings. It’s nearly impossible to read, I think, and I hoped it was an American epical poem meant as a tip of the hat to Virgil’s “Aeneid.” And then I wonder why agents have no interest.

Writing the 110,000-word mess taught me that I can do something grand and ridiculous if I work at it. But what I learned about writing is the real treat; it taught me that when I sit down to write, nothing else around me matters. Not the opinion of friends. Not some agent who has probably never read the “Aeneid.” And certainly not any of my would-be readers who are complete fucking strangers to me anyway. The only person who matters is me.

Too far to fail

The way I see it at this point is that I’ve come too far to fail. That isn’t to say this novel I’ve finished will be a bestseller—that’s almost a foregone conclusion. And the first book I penned is probably too ambitious. And the third one I’m working on should probably be printed out and used to stoke a fire for a homeless person. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve already done more than I ever thought I would.

More importantly, I’m now only writing for myself. I stopped caring about what impact I would have on the world or whether an agent would ask for the first 70 pages. I stopped worrying about whether I’d be published, whether it “should’ve happened by now.” All of that is secondary to the writing, to the process which I’ve continued to honor, to the idea that—at least in my own delusional and warped mind—I am a writer.

The problem with most of the world is that they never do anything. And if they do, they never bother to see it through. This exercise was more likely a way for me to say, “Yeah, I passed on law school and I haven’t published a novel. I drink too much and I don’t really have any responsibilities. But I finished something. Isn’t that worth something? Also, I need to rationalize my decisions for the last 20 years.”

The funniest thing is I’ve resigned to the idea that “All art is quite useless,” as Oscar Wilde once said. Yet I already have five short stories I plan to get on “paper” before the New Year. I’d love to end this by telling you I do it because I love it. But I’m not sure that’s the case. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. There are many times when I hate writing so much I want nothing more than to burn my computer in a Luddite-rage and dance around it in primal fit denouncing the written word.

But they’re my words.

And that’s what keeps me from mass self-destruction. It doesn’t matter whether anyone ever reads them. The only thing that will ever matter is that the words will always belong to me.

Notes:

  1. Old man is right.
  2. I do this one
  3. I also do this one.
  4. Hate to make this a quote-fest, but as T.S. Eliot once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

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  • Paul Caudell

    Great piece, inspired me to pick up a book that I almost finished but gave up on. I should finish it even if it never makes it to a second draft. Cheers!

    • Dexter’s Library

      Absolutely you should. The only difference between people like us and successful writers is they never stop writing.

  • Pete

    I feel you, brother. While reading it I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I had read it before as the gripes and chagrins of other writers; old and young and good and bad. Not to say that this was in anyway stolen, but that it is very much a shared feeling of experience. I think I’m remembering most an essay by Henry Miller in which he essentially says that at his best he wrote for no one and nothing. The story arc of a writer is grand ambitions followed by tedium and rejection and then ultimately, a self-inspired indifference. The epiphany that there isn’t really an ending to the road. There’s no destination that once reached validates all the empty scrawling. Writing, in the end, is just an act; a long walk with nowhere to go. A wandering. And after all, I think that is its virtue – that it is a boundless exercise in thinking.

    It takes a special kind of mind to know that the dark of the void is endless and to keep on reaching for its end. Whether or not that mind is marked by a rare brilliance or a unique form of insanity, ill leave to others. I’m only 24 (I’m supposed to say that, right?) and I have written nothing of any length or consequence and I’m not sure I ever plan to, but I enjoy organizing my thoughts from time to time. It makes them stronger, I think, and that’s good enough for me.

    I admire your persistence and hope that someday you might find recognition for your work if so only you can bask for a moment in its faint glow as you throw it crumpled on the fire.

    P.S. Though if you do ever become the next Hemingway, I’m inviting myself along on all the drunken escapades and adventures.

    • Dexter’s Library

      “Self-inspired indifference” is the best thing I’m gonna read today. Thoughtful as always, Pete.