Taking a rebuilding day

Everything I know about sports comes from reading the sports page and watching sports movies. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a sports game that I wasn’t for some reason being forced to watch. But I still use sports metaphors because this is America, and I can do what I want.

For the last few days I’ve lost a little steam on my writing. Today I woke up and realized that the rest of what I needed to write just hadn’t quite come together in my mind. Normally when writing is going well, the next few scenes sort of knit themselves together as I go, and I can hear the dialogue and feel the action. This time that wasn’t happening. Oftentimes this means I need to go into what I’ve already written and re-work things. But today I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

In sports franchises, there’s this concept of a ‘rebuilding year.’ I think this is an effort by coaches, owners, and GMs to lower expectations: “We’re not going to win many games this year, they’ll say, but we’re developing the players that’ll help us win in future years.” This is the same thing I say to myself on certain days, just to lower expectations. “I won’t write anything today, but I’ll do the thinking that’ll let me write a lot in the future.”

The thing is, when you write the focus always has to be not just on what works, and not just on what the audience will love, and not just on the needs of the market, but, most importantly, on your own heart: Where is my interest; What is compelling to me. There are lots of potential answers to any problem in a novel, but the book doesn’t need an answer–it needs your answer.

This is something I’ve been guilty of forgetting in the past. It’s very easy to think and write and think and write and write and think and think and think and think until you finally come up with a plausible solution, but in all the thinking, you’ve gotten too deeply involved in the craft of it and forgotten the art. For me, I often get bogged down in the plot and forget about what the characters really want–the stuff that’s truly motivating them. So I need a rebuilding day to remove some of the pressure and let me see things more clearly.

 

 

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In Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly quotes Samuel Butler: “Any man who wishes his work to stand will sacrifice a great deal of his present audience for the sake of being attractive to a much larger number of people later on.”

For my part, I wouldn’t put this quite so categorically. I think there are many books, popular in their own time, which have lasted. And I think a few books that are popular today will still be popular in the years to come (the one coming most prominently to mind is The Corrections, which I continue to maintain is a work of genius). But we do often forget that many things we read were not at all popular when they came out. Or if they did achieve some acclaim, the amount was mild in comparison to the honors and applause heaped on books that are now forgotten.

In general, I’m not really worried about my literary reputation after I die (although given the perpetual copyright regime and low returns to labor that seem likely to predominate in neo-feudal Pikettyian, it’ll undoubtedly be quite a god-send for my heirs if my books continue to sell).  But mostly I’m like, ehh, well, I’ll be dead. In the quote above, Butler goes on to say: “The world resolves itself into two great classes: “those who hold that honor after death is better worth having than any honor that man can get and know about, and those who doubt this; to my mind those who hold this, and hold it firmly, are the only people worth thinking.”

Translated away from these somewhat-foreign Homeric terms, the modern version of Butler’s ideas would be about integrity. There are people who hold strongly to ideals and those who don’t. In my case, I’d have to say I’m one who doesn’t. My ideas tend to change in tandem with those of my social set, and the only idea of which I’ve ever been absolutely certain is that there is no afterlife. (Which kind of takes a lot of the pressure off.)

I have noticed, though, that I find it very difficult to compromise in my fiction. This is going to sound absolutely awful and self-important, but I can’t put it another way: I find it difficult to write things that I don’t believe are true. And the more and more that I read, and the more sophisticated my thinking becomes, the deeper is my skepticism about many of the truths that commercial fiction tries to give us.

In some ways, it’s a godsend that I write fiction, because skepticism is at the core of storytelling. You don’t need to come down on any side when you write a story. In fact, when you write, the author often vanishes entirely. This is true even when there are omniscient, intrusive narrators. I’ve read more Trollope than I’ve read of many other authors, and he’s a very political writer, with decided opinions on a number of topics. These obviously come through in his writing, but in his best books, it’s very difficult to tell which is the right side. I’m thinking of The Warden, where he aptly portrays the kind and humane Mr. Harding…and he describes how Mr. Harding lives a wonderful, comfortable life on a bequest originally meant for the benefit of the poor.

You see this skepticism in many of the great works of literature. I was talking with a professor at Hopkins recently about the part of the Iliad where Achilles sits by the river and reflects that if he stays home, he’ll live a long life and be a great king, and his grandchildren will remember him, and maybe their grandchildren will as well, but then they’ll be forgotten. Whereas if he goes to Troy he’ll die young, but be remembered for a thousand years.

And what gives that scene such power is that the argument is so finely balanced. This is Homer, and the lesson people have taken for centuries is that glory matters above all, but there exists in the text a deep skepticism about whether or not to seek that glory.

But that’s the kind of thing that unsophisticated readers often don’t want. I visited a classroom recently and when speaking to the class, the teacher asked if I liked Star Wars (she loves it). I told her honestly: “I loved it when I was a kid, but nowadays all I can think is…this is a lie. Han and Leia and Luke aren’t special. They’re just lucky. There were a hundred thousand other people who set out to topple the Emperor, but they got killed by laser beams during the first scene. The only thing that sets our heroes apart is that the beams happened not to miss.”

I don’t think Star Wars will last for a hundred years, because it doesn’t contain any skepticism. (Note: I don’t feel this about all popular fiction. I think of the Hulk, for instance, whose anger both blinds and empowers him. Or Sherlock Holmes, who contains less humanity and passion than any of the criminals he pursues.)

What I find fascinating is that people who write not-very-complex stories don’t feel their stories less intensely than people who write more complex ones. Most of these stories are not potboilers: they are somebody’s passion. And maybe someday somebody will say the same thing about my books! They’ll say, wow, he really thought a lot of these books, and he wrote so intensely about the process of creation, but…they’re not very complex, and there’s not a lot there.

That’s why I don’t believe in posterity. I don’t know. I don’t know what survives. I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. I’m pretty sure if I’d never heard Virginia Woolf’s name and someone handed me Mrs. Dalloway I’d be like, “This is all over the place.” Hell, I’m probably wrong about Star Wars. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Really feeling excited about reading and writing again

Don’t have much today that’s important to say. I am sick and it’s Friday, so, you know, it’s a free day of sorts. My dad bought me the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass a year ago, and I’ve finally gotten around to listening to it. There’s good stuff here and there, but the part I liked best was where he was like…it takes me about eight to twelve months to write a script, and most of that time is not spent writing. Most of that time, I get up, go through the day, and go to sleep, and I have not written anything. I spend more time trying to write than actually writing.

That was sort of a relief! Nice to know that not everybody out there is just this productivity machine.

I also recently read Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, in which this critic, writing in 1938, attempts to analyze the things that stop a person from fulfilling their initial promise as a writer. And the thing he identifies as being the most pernicious is success.

And I think this is so true. I mean I think of the other YA authors in my debut year who had big successes in their first books, and because of that their publishers put them on the one book a year treadmill. And of course you don’t actually get a whole year to write the book, because what happens is they spend four months deciding on or editing your proposal, and then you get three months in which to actually write the first draft of the book. Then the publisher is just always holding the whip to them, trying to keep up their sales momentum, and of course the quality of the books is never what it was with their debut book.

The result is that their debut book, which should’ve been their worst published novel (because obviously you ought to get better the longer you write, or at least during the first decade or two of your career), ends up being their best novel, and although they might publish for a long time, they don’t ever get their feet underneath them for long enough to produce the work they’re truly capable of.

Unfortunately, if you want to earn a living by writing, this book treadmill is the only way (aside from having one book that becomes a perennial seller so that you just make fifty thousand dollars a year, every year, no matter what you write). Otherwise you’ve got to teach, and although teaching is great, I think I’m with Cyril Connolly in saying that it too is an ‘enemy of promise.’ I think here the evil is more subtle. It’s just that unless you write a very particular kind of book, teaching is inevitably going to take you away from your source material.

For instance, if you write beautiful books about life in the Mississippi bayou, your reward is that you end up getting a job, probably, at Michigan or Iowa and never see the bayou again! For some writers–those whose work already instinctively breathed the air of academe–this isn’t a problem. But for others I think being cut off from your source material ends up, after a few years, killing off some part of your creativity.

But what can you do!? People need to live! They have to eat!

I don’t know. There’s not an easy answer. Having a non-writing-related day job and laboring in obscurity avoids several of these traps, but then there’s the issue of time. Can you really take the time you need to write when you’re doing something else for most of the day. Also, people write because they love writing. Ideally they’d like to do it more of the time. If they loved selling insurance, they probably wouldn’t need to write. So there’s always an impulse to find some way to make this your job.

Anyway, I am lucky, in some sense, that I escaped the book a year treadmill (see: the three and a half year gap between my first book and Winter 2020 when my next book will come out). I got to take my time to write a book that I really loved, and I feel very grateful for that. Of course, nobody ‘gave’ me that time. It was just a natural interval caused by me not being a runaway success and hence my publisher not feeling too stressed about getting another book out of me. But nonetheless it was valuable.

Maybe someday I will be a runaway success. That would be awesome! But for now I do treasure the way I still have a normal life. I’m still in contact with my source material. Most of my friends are non-writers. I live in a very unintellectual city, where I frequently encounter people who have very different values from me. This is good. I like it. Money isn’t the least complicated thing about my situation, but I’ve so far made it work (my book advances have helped a lot with this!)

I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m slowly learning the value of taking my time and of tolerating failure. I used to think of all my many, many, many false starts as failures. Now I just think of them as getting me one step closer to a beginning that will actually work. It takes time though. An incredible amount of time.

Nothing in my life has been more rewarding than reading books from the canon

Last week I was in Baltimore, giving a reading at Johns Hopkins, where I got my MFA. Although I was sort of dreading it–I don’t know, I wasn’t really sure what I had to talk about with my old professors–I actually had a great time! In fact, one of the things that I found most charming, as I interacted with people from the Writing Seminars, was the mustiness and austerity of the program.

I know lots of people hate this about English and/or Creative Writing departments, and I’d probably hate it too if I had to make my career within one, but I like how committed Johns Hopkins, in particular, is to the classics. Because, okay, I just don’t know if there’s a politic way to say this, but…if you’re in the business of studying how to be a great writer, you should probably start by studying great writing.

There is this myth that the stuff being written today is basically as good as the stuff that was written in the past, and you can pretty much level your gaze on any genre or any time period and find more than enough good writing to last you a lifetime.

This myth is both true and untrue. What’s true is that people were not better writers in the past. There are novels coming out this year that are the equal of House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway or The Sorrows of Young Werther or whatever other book you might care to name.

The thing that’s untrue, though, is that you’ll be able to find those novels. Because, regrettably, we seem to be completely unable to look at contemporary art with any sort of sense of perspective. I mean, the Pulitzer committee doesn’t set out every year to pick the year’s biggest flash-in-the-pan, forgotten-by-tomorrow book, and yet somehow, nine out of ten years, that’s exactly what they do. And it’s not their fault! You or I would probably do the same thing. I mean when The Goldfinch came out, I too was like…this book is legit. I enjoy reading it. Now, five years later, I’m like…nobody’s life is going to be changed by TheGoldfinch. It’s just sort of an okay novel.

The thing about great literature is that it often changes our definition of what’s good. Which means that when it comes out, lots of people read it, and are like, “This book is not very good.”

The thing about good literature, on the other hand, is that it often conforms very well to our definitions of what’s good. Which means people read it and they instantly think, “This is a great novel.”

Your taste isn’t special. You’re probably not going to be able to recognize all the books coming out in a given year that are truly world-changing, which means if you only read contemporary books, you’re going to read a lot of good novels that are masquerading as great.

It seems absurd to me that in 2018 a writer should need to defend the classics. Possibly it seems absurd to you as well. After all, the classics have basically all of the power of the State behind them. In some metaphysical way, the classics are books that are backed up by authority. If you cannot graduate high school without studying Pride and Prejudice (as is true in a public school I just visited), then Pride and Prejudice, no matter how wonderful a book it might be, has become a tool of social control, and it’s very difficult to love a tool of social control.

So I very much understand if high school or even college students don’t love the classics. Were I they, I’d hate them too. In fact, when I was in high school, I did hate and resent the classics. What I didn’t like was how they made me feel stupid. I was a person who loved books, but because I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice I somehow had terrible taste? I was somehow not a very thoughtful person? What bullshit!

I don’t think people are bad if they don’t love the classics. Nor do I think you need to read the classics to lead a moral or well-rounded life. In some sense, I think rebelling against the classics is healthy. It certainly is aggravating to be forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and I think only a very tenuous case can be made for the book’s educational value (ironically, it’s assigned largely because teachers think it’s one of the few 19th century novels that the average teenager might be able to connect to).

But I do think it’s sad when I meet young writers who dismiss the classics. In my mind, I’m like…what the fuck are you doing? Why even bother to read if you’re not going to read the best that literature has to offer?

If you hate the classics because they’re all men, then fine, read Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Lady Murasaki, the Bronte sisters (even Ann, I think she had a lot to say), Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Nathalie Sarraute, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, or any of a bunch of other amazing female writers. In fact, this is a particularly unfair criticism for a reader of English to make, because we’re unusually blessed (compared to, say, French, German, or Russian) with a number of incredible 18th and 19th century female British authors.

Similar lists could be made of canonical queer authors (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Henry James [yes I’m including him!], Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh) or canonical non-Western authors (Natsume Soeseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Luo Guangzho).

But I also have to say that I don’t think reading the dead white men is a terrible idea either. It would sadden me if somebody eschewed the ancient Greek and Latin writers just because they were white men (if ‘white’ can even have any meaning at a remove of two thousand years). Antiquity is such a different place from the modern world that it seems absurd to say, “Because I want diversity in my reading, I’m not going to read these works that are incredibly different from anything that people write today.”

I was going in this article to make a case that reading books from the past opens you up to structures and forms that nobody adopts today. You get something from older books (and from translated novels) that you literally cannot find in modern English literature. And that’s true, but only to a point. For instance, Knausgaard is basically the same, formally, as Proust’s novel. And The Goldfinch is basically a Dickens novel, both in terms of style and structure. All of these influences have been so deeply internalized that they’re still around in today’s literature.

More and more, I think the case for the classics is the simplest one. They’re just some of the best books. I’m not saying that there aren’t greater novels than Anna Karenina, but…what are they? If you have any ideas, please let me know, so I can write them down in a list, discuss them with other people, and maybe get them added to college syllabi

(Although actually I don’t think Anna Karenina is taught very often in college, because it’s too long. It’s actually astonishing how few of the ‘classics’ ever get assigned in class, precisely because they’re too long. Most American English majors will graduate without ever having to read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. And if you want statistical proof of these assertions you can find it here.).

I know that the canon isn’t just a list of amazing books; it’d be absurd to pretend that the classics are not a tool of institutional power. There’s a reason that nobody recommends that young Americans go out and read the Quran, even though it’s an incredible literary achievement that kind of does make you believe, at least for a little bit, in the possibility of divine revelation. It’s because reading the Quran doesn’t really do any good for any powerful people in America. It doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t make the reputation of any literary critics. The Quran is something fundamentally not under the control of any white people, not even in a local sense (the way that, say, Edward Seidensticker could be an American expert on Genji), and thus there’s really very little constituency, within letters, for the Quran.

So I admit that. But still, I mean, can’t we also stipulate that IN ADDITION to being a tool of social control, the canon IS ALSO a collection of amazing books?

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.

Sigh!

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.

How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.

Okay, I got reaaaaaally into Cameron Hawley, then I got into Michael Connelly and Scott Turow too!

Haven’t posted much about my reading lately. I spent a lot of January reading Cameron Hawley’s remaining books. I know I posted about Executive Suite earlier, but I liked his other stuff too! I’d say the weakest was Cash McCall, his second book, which relies too much on the mystery surrounding its eponymous figure (a Howard Roark-type personage who is, essentially, a corporate raider). But The Lincoln Lords, which is about a businessman who, after years of jetting from company to company without accomplishing much, finds himself unemployable, and The Hurricane Years, about a playwright-turned-advertising-executive who has a heart attack at age 44 and starts to wonder WHAT WAS IT ALL FORRRRRR?????

Okay, the books do venture occasionally into the realm of the hokey, especially in The Hurricane Years, where this doctor becomes very, very, very personally invested in his amateur psychoanalytic reading of the protagonist’s personality. But the books are essentially very nuanced comedies of manners that center on relations within the business sphere. This is basically my bag. I love it. I mean where is there more interpersonal drama, in our adult lives, than at work? It’s there and it’s in our families. That’s it. That’s why all sitcoms are either workplace sitcoms or family sitcoms (okay and Girls and Master of None and Friends and…alright, whatever, so it was a generalization).

Afterwards for some reason I got into legal thrillers. I think it was because I bought The Lincoln Lawyer on sale at audible…oh my god, I just realized, just now, that I only read The Lincoln Lawyer because its name was reminiscent of Cameron Hawley’s The Lincoln Lords. Well anyway it was a good one. I read Connelly’s other four Mickey Haller books, which are all about a defense attorney who’s just north of shady and who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his murderous clients (except what if they’re really innocent!) off the hook. They’re all fantastic, except for the the third, The Reversal, where he becomes a special prosecutor. That one didn’t satisfy in the same way.

It’s hard to say what made them so compulsively listenable. Haller is an appealing hero. He’s hardboiled, but he still believes in things. He wants his clients to be innocent. He wants to do well. He genuinely thinks most of them deserve better than they get. And I also like the focus on finances and on the daily practice of running a business. I mean it’s a bit romantic, isn’t it, to be running a business out of your car, right? And the courtroom antics are great. I do find all trial books and TV shows to be a bit far-fetched nowadays, since actual trials are SOOOOO rare. I talked to a criminal defense lawyer recently who said that in all his years of practice, he’s only gone to trial twice! But at least Haller recognizes, in each case, that the trial is a rare occurrence.

Once I had the bug, I wanted to read others, so I sought out a few other legal thrillers. I read Defending Jacob by William Landay, which is, basically, a bad seed story. A prosecutor investigates a murder at a school, only to find that the main suspect is his son (the second two thirds of the book is the trial of his son). But it’s an exceptionally well-written one. The voice is so pitch-perfect: it sounds like a fusty fifty year old small-town prosecutor who’s frustrated with modern life (whenever the narrator talked about Facebook and Twitter or interviews teenagers it really made me giggle).

Finally I ended up with Scott Turow. I really have very mixed feelings about him, because on the one hand he’s much better than most bestselling novelists. His books are as much about character development and interpersonal relationships as they are about legal drama. They all seem to be about middle-aged men who have to come to terms with their own smallness and limitations, but you know what? That’s okay! Write what you know! Of the ones I read, I’d say the best was Personal Injuries, which is about a shady personal injury lawyer who gets popped for tax evasion by the IRS and then gets bullied into participating into an investigation of a ring of crooked judges. Although there’s plenty of drama surrounding their attempts to get these judges, a good part of the book’s suspense comes from our unfolding understanding of the nature of the man, Robert Feaver, whose dishonesty started all this.

Feaver, our snitch and (sort of) protagonist, starts off seemed really weak and cowardly, but as the novel goes on, our opinion of him flips and flops, turning one way and then the rest. And you know that in the end you’re going to end up feeling terminally ambiguous (who is he? what is this man worth?), but when the ending finally comes, there’s still a moment of quietness that’s very affecting.

In the negative column, I feel like Turow’s books come off sort of racist. There’s a particular sort of 80s and 90s liberalism that’s worn extremely poorly. I think before now I’d noticed it most often in the work of Tom Wolfe (particularly The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers). It’s the liberalism in which of course you acknowledge that black people have it hard, but where you also argue that black people are too militant and that they’re damaging their own cause. It’s the liberalism in which every black person is alway playing the race card and calling you out for racism. It’s the liberalism in which you pretend that white prosecutors and cops are actually anxious for the chance to prosecute a white man–the liberalism where you pretend that, because everybody is so liberal, white men don’t really get a fair shake in the justice system.

Since this is clearly the opposite of true, it just ends up feeling racist. The gender politics of his books can feel similarly out of date. But if you can look past that, they’re pretty good. Definitely much better than most bestsellers.

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.

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Cash McCall, by Cameron Hawley

I first came to this author through his perhaps better-known book Executive Suite, but this book, his second, is the superior one. Hawley’s schtick was that he was, like Wallace Stevens, both a working businessman and a writer. His books, too, were comedies of manners and morals that centered around mid-sized American corporations like the one in which he worked (the Armstrong Cork Company). Basically, McCall is what’d happen if a smart person picked up The Fountainhead one day and really, really wanted Rand’s vision of the world to be true, but eventually realized that it just sort of wasn’t. There’s a sort of dialectical evolution here. Hawley obviously starts from a similar place as Rand: he believes in free markets and in the worthiness of building and constructing things. But at some point, his deeper knowledge of human nature intrudes and complicates the scenario.

Cash McCall seem to be about a businessman-hero in the Ayn Rand style: Cash McCall is a man who coldly assesses other people at a glance. He has plans within plans, and he sees the world at a much higher and more strategic level than do most. He also talks in these semi-philosophical speeches. But he’s not an architect, and he’s not a builder. He’s basically a corporate raider. McCall conducts what we would, in modern times, call a Leveraged Buy-out. He targets companies which are, for some reason, undervalued, and he borrows money to buy them. Unlike someone like Warren Buffett, he doesn’t even hold onto the companies: he revamps or disassembles them and unloads them after 6-12 months–usually for a profit.

The book centers around his acquisition of a small plastics company (and his romancing of the company founder’s daughter). Throughout, McCall is held up in opposition to Grant Austen, the founder, who stayed put and operated this company, Suffolk Molding, for thirty years. The book plays with you so expertly, never letting you come to easy conclusions about who’s the hero and who’s the villain.

I found myself admiring the book immensely. It is clunky at times, in that very 1950s and 1960s way that many popular novels, particularly by male authors, tended to be. It reminded me, for instance, of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit or of the polemics of the era, books like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd. It’s just very…matter-of-fact. I don’t how to describe it. The book is very focused on its own tale, and not very focused on description or scene or dialogue.

And yet it has a subtle brilliance. This book, more than most I read, seems very fully-realized to me. It’s exactly the book that the author wanted to write, and I hope someday someone can say as much about a book of mine.