This is gonna be a long post kids, so strap in. Not to worry, though, it contains writerly wisdom from Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, Eudora Welty, and other people who’ve already published stuff, so you don’t have to take my word for it.
First off, I’m back from Tin House. There were too many awesome moments to recount them all, but some highlights:
1) The kickass classroom stylings of Karen Shepard. She is a pro and you should all go out and read her exquisite new book, The Celestials, even if you think you don’t like historical fiction, which I didn’t until she convinced me otherwise. Also her family (including her husband, writer Jim Shepard) is the cutest ever. As in, they do karaoke together cute. As in, their son’s band is called The Great American Novel cute. I have a collective crush on/want to be adopted by all of them.
2) Getting a manuscript review from Dana Spiotta in which she basically made me a map of how to get from where I am to the imaginary country of Finished Novelwelt. Between her and her colleague George Saunders, it’s almost like I have an MFA from Syracuse now.
3) My classmates, who were just hella talented and inspiring. I will be the first person in line at the bookstore to buy anything Robin McLean writes, and then I’ll wait off to the side to make sure everyone behind me buys it too.
4) A lecture called “On Failure” by dreamy wordsmith Anthony Doerr, full of examples of yes, literary failure. He quoted Junot Diaz on writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which ultimately took a decade to finish:
Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I’m a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me. Five years, 60 months? It just about wiped me out.
And even then Diaz was only at the halfway point. Anyway I cornered Doerr afterward and asked if he was a hugger. For some reason, whenever we ran into each other during the rest of the conference it always seemed like he was looking for the nearest exit. I think we had a special connection.
So I get back to the east coast revitalized and inspired and determined to finish a draft asap. According to one of the agents I met during a horrific, sweaty-making session of editorial speed dating, there’s basically a 1% chance of my book coming out next year. And that’s if everything were to go perfectly and I got a manuscript to them, like, yesterday, and they signed me and sold it that afternoon and then after no editing it got released in the fall, which apparently is reserved for already established authors. So not looking great.
And then it turned out I had mono.
Eudora Welty once said of one of her books, “[i]f I’d known I was going to finish Losing Battles as a long novel, I don’t know that I’d have begun it.” When I first got to work in 2010 on what I thought would be a short, self-published novella, I expected the whole thing to take about six months. Anytime people would ask me how much more I had to go I’d answer, inanely, “oh, about six months.” I’ve probably promised myself six months a few hundred times since starting, ten times on this blog alone. Clearly, this is the duration that seemed like it gave me a shot in hell at finishing without also being so long that I’d want to quit.
In her lecture, Spiotta quoted from a David Foster Wallace essay in which he describes a scenario that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to write literary fiction:
[A] book-in-progress [is] a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebo-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.
Isolation is probably the hardest of writing’s occupational hazards, which is why I’m so comforted by these tales of woe. Knowing that I’m not alone in the struggle, that my monomania is one that afflicts all novelists. And as with babies, I now understand that novels tend to disobey whatever ideal schedule you might have in mind for them.
Fact: my book will not see the black of a printing press before 2015, by which time I will be 35. Thirty-five! (Just let me have this moment of melodrama, please.) Lately I’m psyched when I stay awake longer than four consecutive hours on any given day. At this rate, I may not even have a full draft by the end of the year. But I’m actually not worried, because this is the closest I’ve ever been to finishing. You know how I know? I’ve stopped saying six months.