I know I love novels, but I’m not sure why

Recently I’ve had friends ask me why I don’t try to write for games or television or the movies. Ignoring the most obvious answer, which is that getting into those things is really, really hard and I don’t feel like making the effort, I think the real answer is that none of those things really do it for me. I don’t know. I mean…I love TV and movies and even electronic games, but at an early age the novel captured me, and that’s simply where my heart lies.

Having said that, I have to say I don’t have a very heroic vision of the novel. Nobody has ever satisfactorily proven to me that it’s in any way superior to other forms of narrative media. Nor do I think that consuming narrative media (in any form, but let’s restrict this discussion right now to the novel) is a particularly meaningful or revelatory act.

Authors sometimes talk about how deeply some book makes them feel, and when that happens, I’m like…really?

I mean I know why books make us feel deeply when we’re young: it’s because everything makes us feel deeply then. It’s not any inherent virtue in the artist or in the media. If that was true, One Direction would be the greatest band of all time, because they clearly have inspired the greatest amount of feeling amongst all the bands in the world.

But now, as an adult, I can’t say that books make me feel particularly deeply. In fact what I’m struck by is how insubstantial they are in comparison to real life. If there was any message I could go back and give to my younger message, it’d be Saul Bellow’s “People can lose their lives in libraries.”

There used to exist, amongst authors, a strong vein of suspicion about the real worth of the written word. Unfortunately, that feeling kind of ended up feeding into the mysticism and anti-intellectualism of fascism, and many authors who strongly questioned the written word ended up becoming fascists. But I don’t think this means the idea was wrong. If anything, fascism is itself a response to the sense that intellectual life doesn’t really have much to offer for a person who wants to feel deeply.

For me, writing books–the act of creation–sometimes provokes deep feelings. I live more vividly within my own imagined worlds than I do within anybody else’s. But I don’t expect my books to do that for other people. I primarily see them as, I guess, very sophisticated entertainments for people, like me, who are too jaded (or we could call it discerning) to enjoy most books. Those people can pick up my books, read them, and be like, huh, I haven’t seen that before. That’s interesting.

That, to me, is all books, pretty much. When I think of the books I’ve read in the last five years that’ve really stuck with me: House of Mirth, The Magic Mountain, Revolutionary Road, Middlemarch…the feeling I got from them was no more than that…”Huh, this is interesting. My attention is engaged.”

And that’s it, then it’s over. There’s nothing more to it than that. Some people spend their lives streamlining inventory flow management for Toyota, and I spend mine writing these books. They’re of limited value, but their value isn’t nothing, and there’s a non-zero chance that one of your books will blow up and become really popular and then you’ll make lots of money.

I read in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that times of societal decline lead to the popularity of quietist, inward-looking philosophies (hence the popular of Stoicism during the Roman Empire). Similarly, I think it’s sometimes worthwhile to notice the smallness of human endeavor. When I write a book, I do think of myself as adding some sort of DNA to the world of literature. But I don’t know how that DNA is going to be snatched up, recombined, or discarded by the forces of chance and necessity. But whatever ultimately happens to it, the result is going to be pretty minor. But still…it’s pretty cool to have left something behind.


The role of doing nothing

The Olympics are still going on, I think, and every year during the Olympics we’re given grisly insight into the training regimens and schedules of a bunch of teenagers and twenty year olds. These are people who’ve worked every hour of every day since they were like three years old. They are so focused and so precise. They can’t make any mistakes. They can’t let any chance slip by them.

Stories of famous musicians are also replete with examples like this. Not just the classical musicians of the world, who are infamous for their level of practice, but Malcolm Gladwell also tried to make the point, in Outliers, that the Beatles, I guess, had practiced a lot more than other bands. In literature, there are stories about people like Balzac, who wrote in eighteen hour stretches. Or Proust, who was so utterly painstaking in writing every sentence of his novel. Or Flaubert, who said, “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in.”

Within the realm of popular fiction, the stories of hard work are usually about titanic, prodigious output. The writer who has three careers going under three pseudonyms. The self-published author who puts out twelve novels in one year. The working mother who wakes up at 4 AM every morning to write. The author who writes on his phone during his morning commute. The message is always the same. Every instant counts. You can’t waste a single hour or day. The competition is so fierce and so intense that if there is anything you won’t do, then you’ll lose, because somebody else is always willing to do that thing.

And yet, within my own writing career, I’ve found that working very hard doesn’t have quite as much relation to the quality of the output as I’d like it to have. For the first five years of my writing life (roughly corresponding to my senior year in high school and my four college years), I wrote not so much (maybe 60,000 words a year), and those years were admittedly not characterized by much success. After that, there was a ramp-up period where I was like, “Holy shit I need to get serious about this,” and I wrote 150, then 300, then 500, then 600 thousand words in a year. Somewhere in there I had about four years where I wrote every single day. This was the period during which I wrote my first book Enter Title Here.

Then, sometime during my MFA, I was just like…this isn’t working. After ETH, I wrote three novels in a single year. My agent didn’t like two of them, and the third went on submission but didn’t find a home. I found it harder and harder to be productive, so I would often write for an entire day and then wake up the next morning and delete it all.

Part of the problem was that Enter Title Here came to me in a flash of inspiration. The main character’s voice leapt fully-formed into my head during the summer of 2012. I lived with that voice for about four or five months, and then during December-January I poured an entire draft onto the page. There was editing, admittedly, but the hardest part had already been done. With this kind of example, it was very easy for me to believe that you just sit down every day and dip your bucket into the well of inspiration and it’ll come.

When it didn’t come, I wrote anyway. Sometimes I finished those books. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I revised the books I finished. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I had the awful overpowering sense that the books were bad, but I persevered anyway. Sometimes I didn’t feel that they were bad, I just felt ‘meh’ about them, and I still persevered anyway. One summer I worked for months on a book that I abandoned, convinced it was bad, only for me to pick it up two years later, re-read it, decide it had potential, work on it for six more months, and abandon again when I decided that it wasn’t something I felt justified my time.

Sometime during all of this, I stopped being so aggro about the amount of time I worked. I kept doing a few things (waking up early, working mostly in the morning, turning off my internet while I worked), but I stopped setting goals and obsessively tracking my word count. I have no idea how many hours I wrote for during 2017. I didn’t finish a book, I can tell you that. In fact, sometimes I wonder what exactly I did do during 2017.

I do know, however, that if the goal is to produce words that will be put into books that will eventually be published, then eighty-five percent of my writing days are failures. These statistics are entirely made up, so bear with me, but I estimate that on roughly 20% of my writing days I have an entirely blank slate: I’ve no idea what I’m working on, usually because I’ve just either restarted or abandoned a project.

On 40% of my writing days, I’m working on adding words to a novel that I’ll eventually abandon (I count here any book that doesn’t go on submission). The number of novels I’ve abandoned has become so immense that I don’t even keep track anymore. It’s something that happens to me all of a sudden. I’ll just realize that this whole approach is worthless, and I’ll transport the entire draft into the DRAFTS folder of my Scrivener document. Then I’ll either table the novel or start writing it anew. Usually after I’ve gone through anywhere from five to eighty openings (which usually have between 1,000 and 50,000 words in them) I’ll decide the novel is unwritable. Note that none of these ‘openings’ ever constitutes an entire first draft. Sometimes I don’t toss away an entire opening before restarting. Sometimes I’ll realize that I need to change my approach, and then I’ll go back and rejigger things without ever throwing the opening away entirely.

On 20% of my writing days, I’m working on revising books that’ve gotten at least to the first draft stage. This at least feels purposeful. Here I count the entire process, from finishing a first draft all the way through to final copy edits.

And on 10% of my writing days–that magic ten percent–I’m engaged in the process of writing a book that’ll someday (at the very least!) go on submission. What’s funny is that these books are created using the exact same process that results in all the books I abandoned. These books too tend to have lots of false starts. These books too contain thousands of thrown-away words (sometimes hundreds of thousands) in the DRAFTS folder. But somehow these books sustain my interest, at least enough that I finish them. Note, at least two thirds of the time, these books don’t sell (or even go on submission) either!

The amount of time I’ve spent, in the last four years, working in any way on things that have been or will be published (including projects I can’t tell you about yet) is, I’d estimate, less than 15% of my total writing time. And this includes edits on Enter Title Here.

For awhile I found this to be a rather depressing state of affairs, but now it just feels so normal. Every day, Rachel asks me how my writing went, and my answer is almost always “Got nothing”, “Meh”, or “It went well, but the book’ll probably fall apart in the morning.” In fact, one reason I don’t tell her what I’m working on is because in a month she’ll ask “What happened to that squirrel wizard book?” And I’ll be like, “Umm, that fell apart almost instantly. I’ve gone through like ten new books / reconceptualizations by now.”

(For me the line between a new ‘opening’ and a new ‘book’ is very tenuous. Sometimes my new openings are so different from the previous one that only I would ever be able to tell that the two are connected. Honestly, it’s just tiresome to keep opening new scrivener files all the time.)

Now I’m aware like this account makes it sound as if I’ve put in rather a lot of effort into my writing in the last four years. And I suppose that’s true. I’ve certainly exhibited a greater than average amount of determination. But as for effort? I’m not sure. To be honest, I’ve become a little blasé about effort.

I used to believe in striking while the iron was hot. I believed if you had hold of something, then you wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Now I don’t know. I find that things often fall apart, and if you write a lot of words then you’re usually just writing more words that you’ll throw away. Oftentimes I’ll write a moderate amount, and then I’ll knock off early, thinking “That felt really good, but let’s see how I feel tomorrow” and when I come back tomorrow I’ll realize I need to delete everything I wrote yesterday. The thing is, I don’t think that realization would’ve come sooner if I’d written more the previous day. In fact, I think it would’ve come later.

As someone who’s spent months and years chasing down books that never turned into anything, I’ve seen the way that effort turns into the sunk cost fallacy. You think because you’ve put in so much time, then there must be something here. But what matters isn’t the effort but the output.

I know lots of people are very productive, but if the output isn’t good, I’m not that impressed. Some productive writers are great (Shakespeare, Trollope, Dickens, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Jim Thompson). Others are at least very good at being themselves (Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, David Weber, C.S. Forester). But a lot of the writers who are producing a book a year are just writing to formula. Most of the writers I actually like are taking at least a few years to write a book, and I’m starting to realize that it’s going to be really hard for me to write a book in less than two years. Not because I can’t write the book, but just because of all the false starts I need to leave time for along the way! Once I have the first chapter, writing and revising it takes six months. It’s finding that first chapter that’s hard!

Of course, lots of literary writers take their time in writing. I mean Eugenides and Franzen and Tartt are taking ten years between books nowadays. But there’s this implication that this sort of time comes because you’re paying alot of attention to the words. And I don’t do that either. What’s the point? I can spend a lot of time worrying about sentences, but if my approach isn’t right, I’m still going to throw it all out tomorrow.

But I don’t know, maybe that’s wrong. For me, the biggest difficulty is finding my way into the voice of the piece. This voice represents the implicit logic of what you’re creating. You can’t write by using the intellect. You’re channeling something deeper inside of you. And I don’t think we really understand how to reliably get into that place. Maybe focusing on the prosody would get me more reliably to that place. I will say that almost always when I feel like I’ve ‘gotten into’ a book I’m writing, it’s because there’s something unique in the prose itself. And if I don’t have that, then no matter how well the book feels like it’s going, I often feel meh about it.

The problem is that I think sentence-level editing is ALSO governed by the intuition! It’s impossible to know whether one word is right or another word is right unless you are being guided by the implicit logic of the piece. So, for me, something like ‘getting into the words’ as a way of finding the voice seems inherently tautological.


I don’t think anyone has developed a good way of finding the place, deep down inside, that stories come from (Robert Olen Butler calls it “the dreamspace”). Authors have developed their own techniques, but those techniques seem mostly just to work for them. There’s a lot you can say about the dreamspace, of course. For me, finding it involves a certain amount of integrity: I need to understand whether this is the book that I want and need to be writing. Which means that finding the dreamspace is mostly a negative action. I fish for some words, then I bring them up and am like, “Nope, not the right ones” and then lower my bait again (no, I don’t practice catch and release–the Fish and Wildlife people probably have a bounty out for my head).

And that’s fine, I suppose. You do what you do, and if someone came to me, I’d say, “Well, that sounds like a process. Trust in it.”

The real problem, and I know it’s taken me 2100 words to get here, is that only that thirtyish percent–the part where I’m deep inside a book that I really know–actually feels like writing. And, since some of that time (maybe most of it) is devoted to writing and revising books that I’ll complete but which aren’t really right for me, the actual time that I’m in my dreamspace feels very, very small, compared to the amount of time I spend trying to get into it.

This feels unfair. I can’t help but feel that some people just slip into their dreamspace with no problems. And, moreover, it makes me question: is not-writing also part of my process? Is abandoning work a part of my process? Is writing bad words, that I get from god knows where, and put into bad novels (that I’ll never finish), also a part of my process? How does this help me? In what way does this constitute ‘effort’ or ‘training’?

Today is a great example. I wrote fifteen hundred words, then I hit a block. I had some notion of where the book could go next, but it felt a little bit wrong. I often feel this sense of wrongness when contemplating a book. Things are for whatever reason not as elegant or as simple as they can be. And I’ve come to believe that it’s somewhat pointless to put down more words when the book is like this.

Sometimes this is where the book breaks down for me. Other times I think of an approach that takes me to where it really needs to go.

I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think of the writing–the typing of words–as being important in itself. Rather, I type as a way of testing out my vision. Sometimes the vision breaks apart almost instantly. Other times it takes ten or fifteen or twenty thousand words for the cracks to show. But the process of writing isn’t the process of putting words on paper, it’s the process of refining that vision.

Sober for eight yearsssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

Just passed the eight year anniversary of my quitting alcohol (and most, but not all, other drugs [I’ve subsequently quit the rest of them too, but this isn’t the anniversary of that]). Feeling pretty good about it! Didn’t even have those ‘drinking dreams’ that sober people often get around their anniversary. The alcoholics know the ones I’m talking about: the ones where you relapse and are like oh nooooooooooooooooo.

I think sobriety is…really good. If I wasn’t sober today, I doubt I’d be married. I might’ve published a few short stories, but I wouldn’t have published a book. Probably wouldn’t have an MFA or any money in the bank. Wouldn’t have my mental equilibrium. And most importantly I probably wouldn’t have the fuzzy widdle kitty we just got! His face is so fuzzy! I like to kiss it.

Yes, two weeks ago Rachel and I got a cat, suckas! Little known fact: I LOVE cats. But since leaving my parent’s home, I’ve never had one. It’s shockingly easy to adopt and care for a cat. I mean I was shocked. We just went to the SPCA and this cute little 6 mo black cat jumped off his perch and meowed at Rachel. We played with him a little bit, and then he was oursssssssssss. We call him Schubert. Partially because of the composer Franz Schubert, who is one of Rachel’s favorites, but mostly because Schubert is a really silly name. Personally I call him Schubie, Schoobs, or Schubie Doo.

Schubie is good cat. He sleeps on our bed, and he likes cuddlesszzes. That’s pretty much all you need in order to be a good cat I think.

In other news, I am writing. WRITING. The other day I was having a trouble with a scene that just wouldn’t quite come out right. The characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do, and then I realized something: I just need to relax. The characters need room to breath. To wander. To be lost. I need to dare to be less dramatic.

This is a lesson I’m continually learning in my writing: dare to be less dramatic. Dare to pull back. Dare to miss the big moment. Dare to scale things down. Now that I’ve adopted this mantra, I’m constantly noticing areas where it can be applied out in the wild. For instance, have you ever noticed how many movies and TV shows (particularly for teens) feature kids who are big movie stars? It’s totally a thing. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll see it all the time.

And each time I’m like, that’s cool and all, but why are they always the star of some big blockbuster? Why not a side-character on a TV show? Why not the understudy in a Broadway musical? Why not the pitch-person in a nationally-broadcast commercial (think the “Can you hear me now?” guy)? Why do they always have to be at the apex of fame? There’s nothing wrong with that choice, per se, but it’s still lacking in subtlety, and its very grossness forecloses so many story options. For instance, if you’ve got the equivalent of Miley Cyrus walking around in your story, everything is gonna be about that. There’s gonna be bodyguards, fans, stalkers, fanfare every second. But if instead you’ve got a minor star, then the story breathes a little bit more. They’re able to be normal sometimes. There’s less distance between the characters.

Of course, I’d probably downscale even more and take out the ‘fame’ thing entirely, since unless a book is specifically about pop culture in a broader sense, it’s generally hurting more than helping.


I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

51XWuULSWdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Okay, so after finishing the Grant biography, I started two books about the Revolutionary War. One’s a biography of Washington (also by Ron Chernow) and one’s a history of early America by Robert Middlekauf. I’m halfway through them, so I’m getting a little more insight, but I have to say I’m still a little confused about why the Revolutionary War started.

Like, I totally understand the Civil War. The abolition of slavery was a direct attack on the source of the wealth of the Southern elite. If there was a political party today that made, say, owning stock illegal, then there’d probably be another Civil War! (Obviously I’m against slavery, just saying that the South had a strong economic incentive to secede.)

But the Revolutionary War makes much less sense to me. The war was led by upper-class farmers and merchants, people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock, who were rich! The British weren’t trying to take away their wealth! In fact, the Revolutionary War, in many cases, hit them much harder in the pocketbook than any taxes would’ve done.

Furthermore, the British taxes weren’t really an existential threat to Washington and Jefferson in the same way that, say, a bullet is an existential threat. I don’t understand fighting and dying for the cause of, what, a bunch of tea merchants who were worried about being undercut by the East India Company?

I mean many of the things that Americans cite when talking about the Revolutionary War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure! So really what was left was a tax on tea. It was the confiscation and destruction of this imported tea that led the British government to close the port of Boston and suspend Massachusetts’s self-government (which is what directly led to the Revolutionary War).

What’s more, the Revolutionary War was obviously one that had a large base of popular support. It wasn’t just the elite who were coercing everybody else into going along. Washington’s army was an all-volunteer force. So far as I know (I haven’t finished either book), there was no conscription during the war. So not only was Washington willing to die, but so were tens of thousands of other people!

I’m reading the Declaration of Independence right at this moment, and when you read that document, Great Britain certainly does seem tyrannical, but in practice, many of these things were based on isolated and rare instances. Yes, the King did dissolve legislatures, revoke charters, make arbitrary laws, etc. But, overall, the hundred and fifty year history of the American colonies was, up to that point, one of being left more or less alone and being allowed, more or less, to rule themselves.

And that fact is probably the key to the rebellion. The American colonies were founded, oftentimes, by people fleeing from Britain. They found in America the freedom to order things in the manner that they pleased. And they came to think of themselves as more or less in charge. But when Britain started to constrain them a little more and remind them a little more of its power, they felt this as an erosion of their liberties. People are much more likely to respond to the loss of something than they are to the prospect of gaining it.

This also, perhaps, explains why the white people of Canada and Australia never (successfully) rebelled. Canada contained a large subjugated population, the French-Canadians, who didn’t necessarily expect better treatment from the British than they got. And, similarly, Australia started as a penal colony. Again there was no expectation of freedom.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t know how history would turn out. He didn’t know, first of all, that the British would rule their (white) colonists with a relatively light hand (well except for South Africa…okay maybe I shouldn’t generalize). In retrospect, it’s surprising that Britain didn’t oppress America much more than it actually did, given America’s lack of representation in Parliament. Washington and the other Founding Fathers had good reason to fear that someday Britain might try to enrich the homeland at the expense of the colonies.

And, finally, the French and Russian revolutions hadn’t happened yet. I think that those two events (as well as the subsequent history of the 20th century) have given elites a deep, deep fear of popular revolution. If they’d possessed the example of the French revolution, I’m not sure if Washington and the rest would’ve dared to rebel. Even in their own time, they feared the power of the mob, but they hadn’t yet seen the havoc it could truly wreak (of course they did have the example of the English Civil War, but in that case the lessons were of a different sort).

The sky is orange, and I have a headache

The fires in Northern California have created a huge cloud of ash that’s settled over San Francisco. As problems go, it’s not nearly as bad as actually being menaced by wildfire, but it is a little hard on the lungs! People talk about how bad the air is in New Delhi, but I’ve never felt over there like I feel right now.

It’s odd how self-promotion can suck the joy out of things you used to do for free

I’m sure most people who read or know about my blog think that I write here as a way of maintaining a footprint so that people will read / buy my book!

Actually this is far from the truth. I’ve been posting here for nine years, ever since August of 2008. In that time, the blog’s gone through the normal vicissitudes as my interest has peaked and faded and then peaked again. It’s even gone through one (rather recent) name change! But it’s never been about selling the book or promoting myself. Indeed, I’d rather hoped for the reverse effect: I’d hoped that the release of my book would draw more readers to this space!

However now that my book has come and gone (though not entirely, the paperback is still in stores!) and since I don’t have a book coming out next year (nor, most likely, the year after that), I am somehow feeling a lot less pressure to post here. Which is an odd thing, when you think about it, since, as I said, I was posting here long before there was even the prospect of a book (long before I was writing novels at all, in fact).

Anyways, I’m rolling with it.

My life has been thoroughly unexciting lately. I came back from my honeymoon. Ummm, I’ve been writing a lot. I read Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the gulag (it’s entitled, unsurprisingly, Gulag: A History), and now I’m reading Orlando Figes’s book about private life in Stalinist Russia: The Whisperers. I’m pretty fascinated by the Soviet Union. It was such utopianism on such a grand scale that it seems unimaginable to me, and I thoroughly understand why it captured the minds of so many leftists in the West. I also understand the history of conservatism much better. It’s a lot easier to see the value of conservatism when it’s positioned as a defense against this sort of radical social change (as opposed to when the radical social change is, say, school integration or gay marriage).


One way into the heart of longing is through envy

Yesterday I was walking through Zurich’s Aaldstadt, the old city (yes, I’m still on my honeymoon), and it was sunny and the cobblestoned streets were full of young, beautiful, carefree people who were sitting at cafes and wandering the parks (just like me), and I was like…sigh. I want to be like them. I want to feel the way that I imagine they feel. I want to project the image that they project.

And I was thinking, as I walked, that there are so many people in the world that I envy, and that this might be a way to get into the heart of longing, so I got back home and I made a list of people I envy. I’m not gonna share it here, because it’s private, but the entries aren’t specific names, they’re actually very general (i.e. esteemed poets; rock stars; people who live with their best friends). But in each of the entries I saw a possible story.

I want to get good at something meaningful

I’ve been playing computer games recently, and it’s been really fun. There’s this service I signed up for: Nvidia GeForce NOW. It lets you play games on your crappy mac! Mine has no graphics card or anything, and I can play the best games at the best graphics settings. Basically the game is installed on some virtual machine someplace, and they just stream it to you. The whole thing is game-changing. Oh yeah, and you can also play PC games on a Mac, no problem.

Anyway I’ve been playing this Lord of the Rings game: Shadow of Mordor. It’s an open world game, sort of Grand Theft Auto style, where you’re a ranger trapped in Mordor, trying to assemble an army to take down Sauron. The game has a really steep learning curve. Basic combat is difficult to master, especially in the beginning, when you have no powers. Anyway before leaving on my honeymoon I played a bunch of this game, and it was really satisfying to get better at it! By the end, I’d finally gained the skills to be able to just hop into combat, no sneaking around or gathering resources necessary, and kill forty or fifty orcs.

But at the same time, the whole thing is a bit stupid. It’s not meaningful in the least. Playing games is blowing off steam, but it’s qualitatively quite different from reading books or watching TV. The latter are pretty passive, they don’t require much from you. You’re a receptacle. But when you play games, you’re gaining mastery. You’re improving yourself.

I feel like maybe that’s something which is missing from my life. I want to get good at something meaningful. Please no suggestions! I know you’ll just tell me to meditate or learn a language or some crap. No thank you. I’d like it to be something meaningful FOR ME, and I think I have a different definition of meaningful from other people.

We’ll see though. I’m gonna ponder it.

The most difficult and important part of writing is finding the heart of longing

Sometimes I think it’s a shame that I’m not a professor of writing, because I have so many lessons to impart that were never taught to me. The biggest amongst these is that a work of fiction (particularly a novel) cannot stand unless you’ve discovered the heart of longing.

In most cases, this longing will be the character’s longing: the desire that animates their action in the novel. But not always. Sometimes the longing suffuses the novel’s narration. In any case, I think each writer has to find their own path to the heart of longing. Moreover, it’s not something you capture once and then possess for all eternity; it’s something you need to find again and again.

The way I’m writing this advice, it probably sounds obvious to you, but I would say that most unpublished and apprentice works tend to lack the heart of longing. That’s because it’s very easy to write something that resembles a novel–something with a lot of verve and action–which is not propelled forward by the character’s own longing. For instance, if you write a book about someone being chased by a wolf, it’s very easy to write a book in which the character runs and fights and runs again, but never really exhibits that desperate desire to survive that would, in this context, constitute the heart of longing.

The heart of longing isn’t necessarily something you explain, though. It’s something that suffuses the work. I’m thinking of the movie Dunkirk, for instance, where none of the characters have any backstory, but they all exhibit such an immense desire to live, and this desire pushes them to do and attempt things that are unexpected and unusual.

Another example is the movie Gravity, which could very easily have been a “man is chased by wolf” story, except that Sandra Bullock’s performance was so magnificent: at each stage she dramatized the decision to fight onwards vs. give up.

Which is to say that it’s extremely difficult to point to any part of a book or film or story and say, “Here is where you need to add the heart of longing.” Instead it’s something that needs to suffuse the entire work. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even begin to write unless you’ve got the heart of longing. (Conversely, if you do have the heart of longing, then you should keep revising, even if the novel seems otherwise hopeless, because having the heart of longing is fifty percent of the battle).

Note that grasping the heart of longing isn’t enough by itself to get your work published. You need other stuff too. In fact, if all you have is longing, then people tend to be turned off. They feel like your character is too desperate. They need to not just have longing, but also to be in some way larger than life and heroic. It’s a tough thing to manage…



Since completing Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South on August 1st, I’ve read all four of her other novels (Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Sylvia’s Lovers) as well as her novella collection (Cranford) and one story collection (Cousin Phillis And Other Stories). I’m currently reading her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which should finish me out on Gaskell, although I am seriously considering chasing down a few of her other short stories, just for completeness’s sake.

Aside from Sylvia’s Lovers, which is her second to last book and a rare misfire (I found the plot to be way too out-sized and Romantic), I’d say all of the above books were excellent and thoroughly worth your time! If I had to recommend one, I’d probably say Cranford, because it’s the shortest, lightest, and has the best humor.

I don’t know if I’m just crazy in thinking that Gaskell is far superior to many other Victorian authors that are generally esteemed more highly, or if it’s simply that my familiarity with those other authors has given a charm to Gaskell, precisely because she does things so many of them do not (I wondered the same thing a few years ago about George Gissing). Namely, would a person enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell if they hadn’t already gone through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Bronte, and Jane Austen (not a Victorian, but definitely the mother of them all).

And the answer is…I don’t know. I think too that my newfound love for Gaskell might be a result for my love of 19th century Continental literature, which generally tends to be much more realist than Victorian literature. Balzac and Zola, in particular, were far just as concerned with depicting the nature of things as they were with eliciting strong emotions, and I love that about them! But I also love English literature’s ability to be sort of fuddly and warm and good-humored! Gaskell, at her best, combines both tendencies! For instance, there is no writer I’ve seen who is more concerned with precise amounts. I’ve learned more, from Gaskell, about the impact of the penny post on daily life than I did from reading nineteen Trollope novels, and Trollope actually worked for the postal service for most of his life!

Gaskell seems to have this insane ability to write about anyone, from any walk of life. North and South is about the relations between the family of a curate and the family of a manufacturer. Mary Barton is about mill workers. Ruth is about an orphan who goes to work in a dress shop. Wives and Daughters is about the gradations of rank between the children of a local lord; a country squire; and the nearby town doctor. Several of her stories concern laborers, servants, tenant farmers, and yeomen. Nobody else in the Victorian era is writing novels that cover the whole breadth of the economic spectrum.

Even today, almost nobody tries it! I mean the other day I was overhearing the conversation of two girls at a café, and these two girls were in town to begin college at SF State. One was going to study communications, and the other was going to study fashion design. Now you can go to the bookstore and you can search through shelf after shelf, and you won’t find a literary novel that’s about lower-middle class people. People write about themselves, and authors tend not to be lower middle class. And even when they are, they, like DH Lawrence, become so rapidly acculturated to upper- and upper-middle class mores that it seems never to occur to them to write about the people they left behind.

It’s an incredible achievement, in a time even more class-bound than today, to write novels of manners that are about lower middle class, working class, or poor people. Some of Gaskell’s protagonists are illiterate, or barely-literate, and yet she still effortlessly maps out their emotional life. It’s incredible! Even Zola has a hard time doing that–he views poor people as being too thoroughly marked by their class. Every character, for him, represents an archetype, and someone like Gervaise Macquart–a laundress who achieves brief prosperity before being toppled by alcoholism and economic insecurity–doesn’t get credit for her indomitable will to survive: even her virtues are nothing more than the sorts of virtues that a person would demonstrate in her situation. They don’t feel specific to her.

I think the best Gaskell story I read was “The Crooked Branch,” which is about a farm laborer who comes into money late in life, buys a farm, and marries his childhood sweetheart (herself now working as a maid). He has one child, a son, who he sends off to school, but the school educates his son to want better things, and the son develops dissipated habits. The father and mother have an inkling of what’s going wrong, but he’s still their only son! The child of their old age! And so they alternately rage against and enable him. It’s not a by-the-numbers situation. It’s a situation that could only occur to people of a certain class, but their fate doesn’t feel fore-ordained. They could have reacted, and the world could have responded, in so many different ways. And the brilliance of the story comes in the specific details of how these people respond to their trials.

Anyways now this blog post is perhaps too long, so I’ll leave off saying more, but she’s a good one! Definitely worth your time (I think).