Sometimes when I’m feeling down these days I’m like, well, this is one of the hardest moments in human history. That does help, a little bit. I mean obviously it’s no black death or Genghis Khan conquering half the world. But it’s not great!
The other thing I tell myself is that, when it comes to writing, the true pleasure is to be able to produce something you’re proud of. You know, I’m an inveterate Wikipedia browser, and when I browse the pages of directors, I’m often saddened by how long it takes them to get their passion projects made and how much bullshit they need to put up with. Being a director (or at least being an auteur director, rather than a hired gun) requires you to be something of a flim-flam artist. You need to know how to sell your vision to a lot of different people. You need to figure out how to get producers and production companies on board. There’s a lot of moving pieces. And the end result is that most directors don’t get to spend very much time directing.
Being a writer isn’t quite the same. I write (almost) every day, and I put a fair amount of time into it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m visualizing and dreaming. But being a writer still requires skills that’re orthogonal to producing good work. You need grit, and, quite frankly, you either need a sense of what sells, or you need to be lucky enough to have native sensibilities that’re in line, at least for the moment, with what’s selling. My sensibilities are inherently uncommercial, and it’s taken me years to learn how to put a candy-coating on my projects so that editors and agents (if not the public) will like them.
That has nothing to do with being a good writer. Even grit and determination have nothing to do with being a good writer. You don’t need grit to produce good work; grit and a sort of insensible, unyielding toughness are just as beneficial to bad writers as they are to good ones. In fact, I sometimes think bad writers have an advantage when it comes to enduring the writing life. They’re more sure of themselves, and they require less inspiration to work, so they can work even when they’re depressed. Not to mention they have an easier time tailoring their projects to the market.
The point is: being a published writer has almost nothing to do with creating work that’s really unique and worthwhile. And, like the auteur direction, the writer who’s determined to create something lasting needs either to be extremely lucky, or she needs to master a lot of skills that have nothing to do with what they’re truly interested in.
But the point isn’t merely to sell books; the point is to sell a book you’re proud of. And the first step is to sit down, do the work day after day, and write something you’re happy with. I’ve done that. The Lonely Years needs a lot more work, probably, but I really like it. I don’t know if it’ll light the world on fire, but the book is more or less what I wanted it to be. And that’s a blessing that you don’t always get.
I do feel bad that where this blog used to be more or less a book review (or at least book impression) blog–you can see up top a bibliography listing all the books I’ve ever discussed on the blog–it’s now almost entirely about a much less interesting topic: the emotional journey involved in writing novels. I’m still reading, although a lot less now that the baby’s born, but I have less to say about it.
Recently I read Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, which was a really impressive book. Not just structurally–it uses the weakest possible hint of tension to get you to read an entire book that’s basically just an old man’s grumblings–but also for its meditations on integrity and aging and the role of traditional, conservative values even in the face of the hectic go-go shifting mores of the 1970s. At a certain point I did get frustrated that the author, a retired literary agent, spent so much time grumbling and bemoaning things, but Stegner wisely provided the character of his wife, Ruth, who was used to puncture the protagonist’s pretensions and call him out. High recommend.
I find myself without the same desire to seek out new books. I own about two thousand books on my Kindle–largely accumulated during two dollar sales–and I’ve been scrolling through more or less at happenstance, looking for books to read. You come across some weird ones that way! Anyways, we’ll talk later, nerds!