I never write about writing; my aversion to discussing inspiration, mechanics, process, rules and editing is nearly pathological. I have never taken a creative writing course, belonged to a writing group or read much about writing aside from “Bird by Bird,” which terrified me so much that it sat by my bed for nearly three years before I forced myself to pick it up. (And was, I must say, richly rewarded for my courage). I am not afraid of criticism; when I write for money I can re-work a piece until my brain grows numb and I fear that if I have to think of one more way to say “attractive” or “exciting” I will explode, leaving tiny, frustrated shards of myself all over my office. I just don’t like to look at the man behind the curtain; writing has always been a kind of magic best left untamed and unexamined.
As part of this belief in myself as a unique and special snowflake, I have smugly bypassed Writer’s Block for my entire life. I am sympathetic, I smile with kindly condescension at those struggling desperately for a string of words, a paragraph, an idea that sets them in motion, but I’ve always got something in the works. There are so many things that light a spark for me, things read, seen, heard, felt and remembered, that my riches embarrass me. I could blog every day if I had time, writing enough short essays to paper Versailles. What I can’t do, it seems, is write a book.
Less than a year ago an agent approached me. She had read my work and wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book. I was ecstatic, validated, terrified and intimidated. It was The Opportunity of a Lifetime, and a chance to get past the half-a-novel-in-a-drawer stage. Yes, I said, yes I will, I can, and I want to and oh yes! (Apologies to James Joyce). She asked me to send her what I considered my “best stuff.” I was sure that she would be so dazzled by my existing work that she would write back and say, “You are the next Elizabeth Gilbert/Carolyn Knapp/Mary Karr. We’ll just put together a collection of your piercing, vivid, beautifully wrought essays and sell it to Harper Collins. Get your hair cut for the jacket picture.”
As it turns out, there is all this business stuff I didn’t know about. It’s hard to sell anything these days, and a memoir is unlikely to sell unless the writer has a “hook.” I do not have an alcoholic mother, an eating disorder, a tumultuous childhood in a gypsy caravan, or any other distinguishing pathos sufficient to interest readers of memoir. I brightly suggested the “I was snarky and cynical but now am mellow and wise” theme; I was told that it wasn’t very strong. I proposed a book based on the essays about my mother’s illness, which might appeal to (and help) others similarly situated; that was another Fail. She suggested fiction. I wept.
I tried all summer. I had a huge chunk of novel written years ago that I tried to re-work. It proved so difficult to mesh my current style and psyche with my vintage self that I gave up. I started other books and deleted them. I kept a notebook with ideas in it, all of which went into blog posts. I began to see blogging as a kind of literary crack that was giving me cheap highs while taking the resources I needed to do Real Writing. It came easily, I got feedback right away, and it made me feel good. Never mind that every insight, image and observation I had was being sucked into one post or another, never to be seen again. I was failing. I wept.
My writing time was limited, and I told myself stories about all the writers who had day jobs at the customs house or practicing medicine and managed to write novels. I would be disciplined, I told myself, I would get up at 5:00 every day and write for two hours or I would write a chapter a day or I would write 500 words. Four months later, there is no novel. There are folders on my desktop with names like “Old Book,” “Book Abt Hgh Schl Grl” and “Book.” In none of those folders are the contents particularly promising. I am panicked by the idea that I have to sustain something for hundreds of pages, keep it alive past 1000 words, draw fully realized characters, say something meaningful, and think about the same piece of writing for months. I fear the lack of feedback and forsaking the high of completion and praise. I say things like “I don’t really write fiction” but I am a terrible, terrible coward who really has no idea whether I can write fiction or not. I write what’s easy, and what gives me instant gratification.
It is National Novel Writing Month, and I’m not. (Writing a novel). I am thinking about it though, wondering whether I can invent characters and stories informed by my thoughts and experiences. I have a much lighter load at work after today and it will last for at least two months. I could try again to get around this strange kind of writer’s block in which I can produce essays with the greatest of ease but not get past the second page of a novel without wanting to flee. I could stick to it, make myself keep going when it seems pointless, holding my best thoughts close and saving them instead of compulsively squandering them on the quick high of a blog post. We’ll see.
It was a dark, and stormy night.
Call me Ishmael.
All my life, I have pretended that I had an audience waiting breathlessly to see what I would do next.