Wondering if I’ll ever do the thing that only I can do

My book is coming out in two months! (August 2nd, August 2nd, August 2nd)

I mostly am not dreading the release. I’ve stopped reading any reviews, good or bad, though I suppose I will take a look at the trade reviews, if they’re any good.

Also am working on another book. Almost two thirds of the way through giving it a first-pass. Then might do a second pass. Then might send it to readers. I dunno. I like the book, but I haven’t been insanely productive.

Part of the problem is that a lot of my routines and rituals were chucked aside when I got depressed earlier in the year. I simply didn’t see the point of most of them anymore. And I still don’t. What’s the use of sitting down, day after day, and writing reams of trash that never goes anywhere? One might call it practice, but so far as I can tell, trash is trash: it doesn’t really do much at all for developing a person’s skills.

So I’ve been trying a lighter but more deliberate way of working. The problem is that some tasks are genuinely time-consuming. It takes a long time to go through a book. It takes even longer to rewrite sections of it. So how do I recover the discipline that allowed me to work and to produce? I’m really not sure.

I feel more interested in writing than I have in years. But I also am not 100% back to what I was before my novel was sold. There’s a hunger (for recognition, mostly) that’s gone, and in many ways I do not miss it. Yes, I feel envy when my friends have success, but it’s less than it was, and I’m happier for them than I ever could’ve been before.

Before I was published, I had high ambitions. I wanted to write work that sat alongside my favorite authors. I wanted my name to be spoken in the same breath as Willa Cather or Edith Wharton or Emile Zola or Sinclair Lewis or Tolstoy or Stendhal or Balzac or Proust or David Markson or Ted Chiang or Maureen McHugh or any of hundreds of others–people who had seen something that other people couldn’t see.

And yet when I look at my work, I think, “When does that happen? When do I see something new?” I look at my writing, on a sentence level (which, as any of my blog readers should know, is not something I consider particularly important), and nevertheless I’m dissatisfied. I fall back too much on “almost” and “very” and “just” and “actually”. Sometimes I look at a page of my prose, and those words are all I see: line after line of weak little nonsense words, with only a few strong ones (in this paragraph, “nonsense”, “dissatisfied”, and “sentence”) leaping up out of an otherwise indistinguished mass.

My syntax, too, feels tortured and overlong for what it is. Long sentences should feel as if they are dense–as an aside, “feel as if they are” is what I mean by a string of nonsense words: it feels like it ought to be so easy to cut them out of your writing, but I can’t do it, because when I take them out, the sentences turn into lies, and they become pretenders to a clarity that I don’t feel–but my sentences don’t feel, to me, as if they’re dense. They seem thin, as if I’d poured a jug full of meaning onto the floor and turned it into a shallow puddle. But short sentences are no better. People say short sentences ought to be clear, and mine are, but only because my seeing isn’t fresh. My images are clear, because you’ve seen them before, in other, better, books.

And all of that is stuff that I don’t think is particularly important. I’m reading a novel now, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, that is not, in my opinion, very well-written. I’d almost say the writing is worse than average. It’s confusing, on a line level, and it’s full of similes that feel cobbled together at random and add nothing to our understanding of the story (the one I copied and sent to a friend of mine was “Oh, really,” he’d said, his mind filling with fear, like a flock of flapping bats.) And yet the book is more than good. It is great. The level of understanding is so immense. It’s three friends who desperately want to help their other friend, a victim of tremendous abuse, but who are unable to connect with him on an emotional level, mostly because they’re all men, and men aren’t really given the tools to do this sort of thing. So even though the conflict is frustrating (I constantly am shouting, “Just talk to each other, dammit!” at this book), I also understand exactly why they can’t talk to each other. And that’s a triumph. It would be easy to twist this story and turn it into a lie: to give the friends a good reason for being frightened of talking (maybe they’re cruel to each other, sometimes, and maybe there is a chance that the truth really would drive them apart), but this book doesn’t do that. Instead it brings to life that terrible, baseless fear that keeps us trapped inside ourselves. And it doesn’t do that with pretty sentences. It does that with careful observation and through the careful development of a progression of events. These characters do the things real people would do. They think the things real people would think. But these very real characters are then faced with situations that real people do not often have to face. It’s the juxtaposition here between reality and artifice that heightens aspects of their characters that wouldn’t be apparent if they were actually real people.

So I don’t think beautiful language is the most important thing, but I also feel like I’m not particularly wonderful at the things I do think are important. My work is good. I understand that. I have drawn some interesting characters. I have put them in interesting situations. But does it have that special sauce? Is it doing something that nobody else has ever done?

I don’t know, and I think you never really know, do you? Because the problem is that if you’re going to stand alongside your favorite authors, then you need to do something they never did. And nothing in life prepares you for that. Nothing in any writing class or any English class teaches you how to be creative. Nor does it teach you to recognize creativity. Would I know that Proust was special if nobody had told me so? Or that Edith Wharton was better than, say, Booth Tarkington? Booth Tarkington is a wonderful writer. He won a Pulitzer. And I thought the characters in The Magnificent Ambersons were vivid, and the setting–this small-town high society–was so specific and well-drawn. And yet I couldn’t finish it. There was nothing more there. It didn’t have the special sauce, while Edith Wharton did. And I believe in that judgement, but it’s also the prevailing judgment of the literary community: Tarkington is forgotten; Wharton is remembered.

What’s harder is to understand who are the Edith Whartons of today? And who are the Booth Tarkingtons? Is A Little Life a great novel? Or merely good? I know that those things don’t have a fixed value, but I’m not even sure about my own subjective opinion. It’s hard, when nobody is giving you the answers.

And hardest of all is making these decisions with regard to your own work. What is good, and what is great? When do you have ahold of something you should pursue, and when are you following a dead end? What are my themes? What are the things that only I can write about? What, if anything, am I doing that is new?

These are things that I think about nowadays, and which I never thought about before. Maybe it’s turning thirty. It does feel, at some point, like I should start writing the books I am meant to write. And I don’t know if I am doing that.

I’m not slumming it. I don’t feel like I’m just writing these YA novels while I make room for the great works that will someday take root in me. These books are genuinely the best that I can do. But is that enough? Are they too simple? Are they too thin? Too cliche?

The problem is that your work is only going to be great in one dimension. It will be great in the particular, inimitable way that you are great (assuming you–by which I mean ‘I’–ever achieve any level of greatness at all). In all the other dimensions, it’ll be merely good.

So sometimes I’m left to read my work and wonder, what is it that only I can do? Is it a type of character? Is it a setting? A way of thinking?

No, actually, scratch that. Great authors create worlds that are unique. I wrote last week about how Steinbeck is so confusing because he has two different worlds: the world of Grapes of Wrath and the world of East of Eden. Most authors aren’t like that, most authors only create one world. Even Nabokov, for all his genius, had only one world. All of his books take place in Nabokov land: sun-drenched and playful, and yet shot through with brutality.

Actually, most authors create no world. They play in somebody else’s world. And if they do it well enough, then that’s enough to make a career, because oftentimes all that readers want is to be transported back to a world where other author once took them.

(You know, we spend so much time talking about how children are so playful and so imaginative, but there are ways in which they are very conservative. As a kid I could read five hundred books about put-upon youngsters who discovered secret destinies. It’s only as an adult that I’ve come to demand more. I wonder sometimes that we don’t respect adulthood more. Too often people seem to see it as a time when growth ends, but that’s not been my experience of it at all.)

So I ask what is my world? Do I have one? And if I do, is it a place anybody would want to visit?

Weird as it may seem, given the extreme length at which I’ve written about them, I don’t find these to be particularly depressing thoughts. To me they’re a sign of hope. I am anxious to create. But I also feel the beginnings of what may someday be an acceptance of my own mediocrity. I don’t know that I will ever find anything new. I really do not know it. Every author is searching for their world, and so few seem to find it.

I feel this weird temptation to just keep on writing, even though I’m long past the point where most of you have stopped reading.

What’s weird to me is how different my current interests are from what they were when I was a kid. When I was young I only read science fiction and fantasy; I spent thousands of hours playing video games; I designed D&D campaigns; I made video game mods, and I toyed with the idea of learning to code. I was into space and futurism and technology, and I often wrote about the far far future, millions of years from now. I cannot stress the extent to which I only cared about the speculative and the fantastic. Realism had no place in my life.

Today I never think about those things. I couldn’t care less about them, truthfully. I read science fiction and fantasy only rarely. I fear I’ve become one of those people for whom “It doesn’t take place in our world” has become a turn-off.

Where did it all go? It’s weird that I write novels for teens which my teen self would never have read. It’s not even that my sixteen year old self would’ve rejected my book: it’s that he probably never would’ve even encountered it, so firmly was he seated in the science fiction and fantasy section of the bookstore.

 

Anyway, now that I’ve long exceeded the polite limits of a blog entry, I think I leave you with a picture of Booth Tarkington (doesn’t he just look like a Booth Tarkington, too?)

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