My first really serious boyfriend fancied himself a writer. He did, in fact, write massive novels which I edited for him, suppressing my knowledge that they were truly terrible because the guy was really, really hot. They had plots, I’ll give him that, but the dialogue was stilted, cliches grew like mushrooms after a soaking rain…you get the picture.
Even my pathological desire to be the girlfriend of this moron didn’t prevent me from arguing over and over with him about whether writers were born writers, or whether, in fact, anyone (him, for example) could just buckle down, apply himself and produce a novel. The key phrase in this argument was always “marketable.” He believed (and may still believe) that if you write some formulaic novel that people will read in order to distract themselves from actual thinking, it is “writing” and “marketable” and “good enough.” I believe that there is a place for romance novels, “Sweet Valley High” and certain kinds of mysteries, and that while they are technically “written” they are not “created,” and are not “art” of any kind. This was a total cultural and personal impasse; I do believe that “anybody can write a book,” but I also believe that I do not want to read something written for a check and not because of a need to communicate something, and to be heard.
The clear, objective truth, however, is that while Beautiful but Dumb did, in fact, write several entire novels, I have never gotten past page 162. I have been writing novels since I was in the third grade, at which time I produced a hand-written, hand-illustrated work entitled “Lacy Comstock;” a vague bastardization of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with a little Caddie Woodlawn thrown in for good measure. In fourth grade I received for Christmas a beautiful, red Olivetti “Valentine” typewriter which I used to write a variety of short stories, and the start of numerous novels which tended to be largely autobiographical with an overlay of fantasy. Not fantasy like “Lilith;” fantasy like I was a famous girl hockey player, lived in Rhode Island and had long auburn hair and flashing green eyes. My alter ego was almost always named Sarah or Abigail. I continued to write various Unfinished Novels until I was out of college.
In college, I chose to be an English Major rather than a Creative Writing major mainly because I was totally mystified by what went on in the Creative Writing Department. I understood how to read, discuss and write about literature; I did not understand the highly expressive, raw, in-your-face, and often abstract kind of writing that I read in the school’s literary magazine. My personal taste ran to the extremely subtle and restrained variety of fiction and poetry (Wharton, Austin, James, Yeats, cummings), and although I had a long flirtation with Sylvia Plath, and wrote a great deal of my own wretched poetry about the general crap sandwich of teenage life, it was really Plath’s formality that made me love her writing. The process of laying out life-altering, heart-rending events and emotions so elegantly that the emotion is heightened by the very sense of repression inspired me. The wild, emotive, chaotic poems that were held up as golden exemplars in the Creative Writing program were total anathema to me, and (being a competitive type) I knew that what I would and could write was going to be judged as derivative and uninspired. I wrote papers about light and dark imagery in Shakespeare, and kept writing short fiction and poetry “on the side.”
The other problem with my life is a writer was my belief that one became a good, professional writer by means of some sort of magic, and that there was very little of it to go around. Being a professional novelist is in the same category as becoming a professional basketball player or the next Britney Spears; one has a greater chance of being struck by lightening. At a cocktail party, if you bring up writing as a profession, you will meet at least five people who believe that “they have a novel in them.” Everybody can write, right? Not everyone believes that they can perform brain surgery, or create cold fusion in a glass, but everybody can write. Self-deprecating young cynic that I was, I convinced myself that the fact that I loved to write, and that I was good at it meant that I was a merely higher order of Deluded Idiot. I read accounts of novelists submitting their novels to 18 editors without success, only to be “discovered” and become famous. I read accounts of writers who actually died unread and unloved, only to have their works appreciated after they were able to celebrate only in the spirit world. My assessment was that every moron out there, including my own Beautiful but Dumb boyfriend had read the same accounts and had the same dreams, and that the market was so glutted with their submissions (along with those that were magic, and infinitely better than my own) that there was no reason to enter the fray.
Law school sounded the complete death knell of creativity. Without going into tedious details, I will explain that I went into law school in the fall of 1987 a creative type, and came out unable to write anything that was not fact-based until I started writing this blog in 2003. In a world in which no sentence may be written that is unsupported by fact, and in which the greatest weight is given to arguments which logically follow arguments already made and accepted, there is no room for the creative flourish or the personal expression. Law school was a mistake for so many reasons that I could probably write for thirty days straight about that, and that alone; suffice it to say that the worst thing, the very worst thing about that particularly bad choice was that it made writing into a form of verbal algebra instead of a creative act.
So this morning I was reminded that today begins not only National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) but National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Ridiculous names aside, these two challenges mean that I will be blogging daily, and also writing about 5 pages of a novel every day. The “finish line” of NaNoWriMo is reached on completion of a 175 page novel. It will not be Wharton; it may be pure, unmitigated garbage, but it will be a way for me to be better informed and less cynical about my direction as a writer. Maybe I “have a novel in me.” Maybe I don’t. We’ll know at the end of the month, and I’ll know whether I can really communicate on the page and create art, or whether I would be better off attending classes on Writing Romance Novels for Beginners.
I’ll get back to you on this.