Thursday, May 30, 2013

Re: To Our Valued Customers

When a first draft of a novel is under way, it’s imperative that I am excited about the process and the materials, and vitally interested in trying out new ideas and taking risks (as Tom Hornbein--physician and climber of mountains--says, “Uncertainty--which is to say risk--is the spice that makes life worth living”), and it’s also important that I ignore the flaws in the work and the shortcomings of my craft. I allow myself to be guided primarily by instinct, at least during the creation of prose. No, that’s not quite right. Yet it is. I am tangled up in contradictions already, because I do a lot of outlining and preproduction work, as it were, and each chapter (at least) is outlined before I write it out, but while I’m writing it out I am of course improvising and don’t know how closely—if at all—I’ll stick to my outline, so I am working above a net that I might fall clear of because some parts of the high wire are stretched high above ground not covered by the net, see? But that’s not what I meant to say. Yet it is.

I am thinking about the process of writing as a form of self-evaluation of craft, maybe. There is a time in the genesis of a novel when a writer must be aware of every flaw, every weakness he has, and he must concentrate his efforts to overcome those weaknesses and eradicate those flaws and write the greatest novel that’s ever been written. Yes, that’s what I said: every writer is accountable to one standard, the standard of the greatest work possible. I compare my own writing to those works that I consider the absolute best examples of fiction, and judge my work accordingly. I fail, of course, but I know at least what I’m trying to do. Or outdo, really. Fuck you, Mr Chekhov, I’d like to say; this is how it’s done in the pros. Mr Chekhov’s spirit laughs at me but that’s okay.

Right now I’m drafting a new novel (current working title THE HANGING MAN) while making revisions to two other novels (THE TRANSCENDENTAL DETECTIVE and GO HOME, MISS AMERICA). The revisions work is what I’ve described above, where I try to make my novels into the most excellent novels anyone has ever written. The drafting work is what I rant about in the first paragraph of this non-essay, where I let my instinct bully the text around and I try to pretend I can do no wrong because it’s all provisional and I’m working on new ideas of craft and voice and other narrative elements and I want the freedom to experiment.

I can easily imagine a writer of fiction who tries to remain in one or the other of these mindsets; this writer either refuses to look critically at his own novels or refuses to let himself explore new territory. Either way, he is not taking the necessary risks to become a good writer. Confronting one’s basic level of competence full in the face is a risk because we might not be aware of how far we fall short of our imagined perfect novel we’re trying to write. Confronting the richness of one’s imagination is a risk because we might not be aware of how little we are actually using our imagination, how much we rely on cliché or stereotype in our storytelling. None of which is to say that imagination and craft are that separable, that they are opposite poles or any such foolish thing. No, what I mean is…well, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just fascinated with my own processes, as usual, and it strikes me as interesting this morning that I am trying to make two novels into perfect narratives while trying to make one new novel into as huge a mess as I can in the hopes that something cool will turn up in all the mess. Or maybe it’s not even a mess at all, and it’s just that I can’t see the shapes and colors of the novel yet because so much of that shape and color is still hypothetical, potential, unwritten as yet.


  1. Yes. Yes. And yes. It is all a mess until it's not.

    I found a story the other day, not something I would usually write, but it came to me and I said, "Okay, let's see where this goes." And I sat down to write.

    Somewhere along the way, I said, "I can't write this. It's not me."

    And then I said, "So what. Just write it." So I did.

    And I thought when it was finished it was pretty good.

    See, this is what I miss about the Literary Lab. You guys forced me to take chances I normally wouldn't take. Make messes to see what comes out of them. I guess I'm learning how to make my own mess now. And I'm outlining. Which I NEVER do. But, for my next 3 books, they're all outlined front to back. Scary stuff that.

    I think I'm growing up.

  2. And hey, just wondering if you ever read my book. I know it's not your cup of tea, but curiosity killed the cat.

  3. Anne, I'm reading it now. It took me a while to get to it, but I got to it. I'll let you know what I think when I'm finished.

  4. I just finished more revisions on Out of Tune and realized how it has changed (for the better I do hope) from when you read it and I hang my head in shame that I didn't send you this version instead, but I wouldn't have reached this version if it weren't for your feedback, so there's that.

    Mr Chekhov’s spirit laughs at me but that’s okay. --- mwhahaha -- don't we all feel this way?