For the past three years on my computer there has been a “novel.” I use the air quotes here because the “novel” is as preposterous, as young-hearted, as many other twenty-three old people’s “novels,” and to boot it is also not a Novel, as it lacks a coherent Western narrative structure. There is no beginning, middle or end.
I started this “novel” in a virtuous fit, in a college dorm room, some sunny day when I managed to convince myself that I was the prolific wunderkind with something to say, and capable, and disciplined. This was not long after having my computer stolen from my purse. And from that burst of karmic good feeling, that screw-you-universe-I-shall-overcome, I figured every day would be ten pages in three hours and you know, in a few months it would be done, and shortly thereafter I’d be one of the younger people to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t think about the story I was telling, or why I was compelled to call my characters a piece of a whole at all. This would later become: I don’t actually have anything specific to say. My characters don’t have anything specific to do.
Only now I have told all these people, I’m writing a “novel.” I have probably told you, and when I told you I used the air quotes, cheapening any achievement all the more. It’s dumb! Meanwhile, the work is suspended: on a “productive” day, I eke out two paragraphs I’ll delete later in the week. It’s a kind of Sisyphean task, writing the novel – and not at all the moveable feast I imagined, the Parisian cafes of Hemingway and F. Scott and Miller. Of course, I knew this. Most of what you read about writing emphasizes how un-easy it is. Still I keep spinning back to these little ghost people of my creation – even though the project is now sapped of all the glamour and most of the fun. There are never any outlets at any of the coffee shops I go to, and I can’t afford to sit around looking cappuccino-cool while I in fact just refresh my Facebook feed, or apply for jobs I don’t want to get. I have designed this huge obligation to my ghosts, but I have nothing to give them. What to do?
Two favorite sources – David Foster Wallace wrote an essay in Both Flesh and Not comparing the experience of writing a novel to having a needy, demented infant following you around; you love it, it needs you, you can’t quite be at peace unless you’re taking care of it… it’s also hideous, loud, resentable and upsetting. And Michael Chabon described an anti-hero in his novel Wonder Boys who had a lot more clout than me but a similar fog to wade through – protagonist Professor Grady Tripp is trying to follow up an early-career opus with a miserable, thousand pound infant of his own. He can’t let his baby go. He writes and writes until there are hundred page sidebars on the horse linneage of so and so’s father, as if he’s Dickens, paid by the word. It takes a bolt of inspiration and a dousing of perspective, but eventually Grady realizes (shocking spoiler alert): the story was all around him all the time. I wonder now if I can extract a kind of gauntlet from these examples. Can I keep lovable pieces of my project while being unafraid to break it down and cut it up (the baby analogy gets upsetting here)? Can I listen to why I’m writing it, can I follow my ghost people to their ghost home, ghost purpose? Can I raise my demented infant into at least a happy toddler, can I send it off to daycare and rest easy for a time? I need to change my approach, in any case. I’ve learned I write for yes, compulsion, but also because I like people. I like the puzzle of them. I like what we do and think.
I’ve always been the sort of person who responds best to a demand or deadline, which is maybe part of the reason why the baby is so aimless and doofy. So, after having made a small pile on my bedroom rug of the stories that have really stood out for me as exemplars of the form, after having taken serious inventory of my own little ghouls and my own habits and my own interest in this form at all, I have…abandoned ship. Sort of!
Do you know what Dickens, Dumas, Melville, Flaubert, Tolstoy and James all have in common? Why, according to Wikipedia, it’s the fact that many of their greatest works of fiction began as serials in local papers. From 1873 to 1877, anyone with a subscription to The Russian Messenger could get a weekly dose of Anna Karenina – first draft, of course. In 1984, Tom Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanities in twenty-seven separate installments in Rolling Stone. Armistead Maupin got everyone hooked on freelovin’ San Francisco in his serialized Tales of the City, published over a four year period in The San Francisco Chronicle. And a lot of these Caucasian men went on to win awards.
Hear ye, devoted readership of the Adelpheans: should you wish to partake, I’d now like to ruthlessly use you as guinea pigs in a grand experiment. I’ve got a bunch of ghosts with nowhere to go; I like the ghosts. I want to follow them for a while, see if I can get a bit older with them, a little bit wise. I do it for practice. I do it for love. I do it because I like the idea of parsing out a narrative, of being surprised and refreshed by it every time I return to its world. I have a few good names, an interesting place, and a local paper.
So stay tuned! Next week. Most Tuesdays from here to eternity, you can find here: All Gussied Up, a serial.