I’ve fallen into a pattern with this book where I write for a few days, then feel a slow cessation of desire to write, which, as I have learned, is usually because I’ve subconsciously detected some sort of problem in the text. Then I stop writing, and I mull. There’s a few days of total confusion and despair. Then a solution appears. But…and here is my innovation…I don’t immediately start writing. Instead I wait for some days (or even weeks) as the solution builds, and as that solution reverberates through the text, forming connections and sticking to other pieces of the narrative, solving other problems. It sounds cool and fun and easy, and I suppose it is those things, but it’s also slow and frustrating. I kind of miss the days when I’d just bang on the keyboard every single day. Yes, they were ultimately unproductive, since I’d follow a half-baked conception of the story and sometimes even produce an entire draft before I realized what was wrong. But that at least felt like progress. This does not feel like progress. It feels like doing nothing.
Writing doesn’t seem like it needs to be this hard. Ideally you just create a bunch of characters with opposing desires and set them free to interact. The problem is that when you do this, you inevitably create large, dramatic stories, focused on outsized people and event. And that’s because, frankly, interpersonal conflict is not a major part of ordinary life. Peoples’ conflicts, in life, are of the smaller, more mundane, diffuse sort. People are beset by creeping anomie and loneliness and self-destruction and by the persistent, yet sourceless and blameless, attempt of society to destroy them and people like them. It’s inherently undramatic and, hence, rather a hard thing to dramatize. Modern society doesn’t have heroes or villains, only victims, and it’s very hard to write a story about victims.
I think that’s why, in my storytelling, I have to work so annoyingly hard. Because the natural tendency, for my characters, is to not come into conflict. I have to continually refine my stories to discover those rare situations in which these subterranean conflicts are brought to the surface, but in the process I don’t want to distort or enlarge them, I want them to remain just as small and persistent as they are when they’re still underground.
It’s not an easy task! The continual tendency of my characters, when given their own way, is for there to not be a story at all: for them to split apart and to go their separate lonely ways. It takes a lot of artifice to knot them together even for a week or a month, much less a year, so as to produce something that can be visualized: concrete scenes, with dialogue and action and conflict and stakes. To put it differently, Virginia Woolf didn’t just show us ‘a day in the life’ of Mrs. Dalloway: she showed us the very specific day when she is reintroduced to not just one, but two, of her former lovers.
Of course Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in a year, and I’m on my third year of working on this book. But we can’t all be Virginia Woolf!
In any case, I sometimes undershoot my target, producing work that’s tedious, but I also sometimes overshoot it, producing work that’s sentimental and needlessly dramatic!
What I dislike most about this way of working is that the characters don’t quite come alive in my mind in the way they do if I work more organically. Each character contains a kernel of life–a tendency–but it’s something I refine as I go. Only in the final drafts does each character become the thing it always should’ve been. What I carry most throughout a book is the voice: sometimes the voice of the characters, but more often the voice of the narration. I used to think that voice was all that matters and voice sells books, and that’s true, but only if you pair the voice with a plot that uses attention-getting devices to propel the reader through the book. But if the story you want to tell is antithetical to those plots, then you need to work much harder.
It’s not unpleasant. I’m having fun, I think. And it’s honestly not a lot of work. But what does grate on me is the pointlessness of it. Nobody wants this kind of book. To me it constitutes the merger of realist and romantic fiction: it’s about taking the larger-than-life qualities from characters in stories–the qualities we all aspire to embody–and putting them into realistic situations. I don’t think that I write reality as it is; I write reality at its best, when it’s peopled by human beings who’re trying to be good and honest and struggle to achieve something. But it’s not something anybody really wants or admires, especially because when it’s done well all the strings disappear, and you feel like you’re reading something that’s not constructed at all.
When I think about the purpose of my books, I just think…the point is to give people hope. The life that we lead, on a day to day level, does matter, and it does offer scope for human connection and heroic action. You don’t need a radical break from the world to live well. You don’t need to stand in front of a line of tanks or leave your wife or become a whistleblower exposing corrupt practices. You don’t even need to help other people. You just need to know yourself and to pursue your own deeply-held desires. I really do think that we all have our struggles, and that there is honor and value in those struggles, and that’s why I write what I do. I think if my fiction had no connection to ordinary life, as lived by people like me and those I’ve known, then I’d be too depressed to write. But ordinary life, while full of joy and honor, just isn’t dramatic! Sort of a difficult problem, and my solution, which is to use all my craft and knowledge of storytelling to eke out another few pages of the reader’s interest, is inherently unsatisfying. But whatevs, that’s life.