Since the 3rd grade when I won a contest with a little poem about candy fish swimming in a lemonade stream, I have wanted to be a writer. And in many ways, I have been a writer. I have written essays, letters, and through Junior High and High School no less than seven volumes of journal entries. I have written poetry when inspired. I have even, with some help from the muse of unrequited love, written lyrics to the greatest rock ballads never sung. In college, I wrote what felt like hundreds of papers on topics ranging from politics to Picasso. To finish my graduate degree, I spent two years researching and writing a 125-page thesis about the image of a black Christ in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. This thesis, bound in dark blue with gold lettering, sits on my living room bookshelf and rates among the treasured items (after the children, of course) I would grab on my way out if the house ever caught fire. Recently, I’ve written grant proposals, church talks, and many documentary-style paragraphs in my kids’ baby books. Since September, I’ve picked up a sometimes invigorating, sometimes debilitating blogging addiction and pushed the sublime, orange Publish button over 100 times.
But still I do not consider myself a writer. Why not? Because in the mythology of writers, the NOVEL is the golden fleece. It represents the holy grail, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the supreme mantle of writer-hood. When someone says, “I’m going to be a writer,” does she exile herself from all polite society and pound away at her battered Underwood for weeks at a time in hopes of producing the next Great American personal essay? Of course not. She writes a Novel. She creates fictional characters. She sets scenes. She plots. Then she (after several rejections which cause her to nearly, but not quite, give up and go back to her clerical job) publishes said Novel and goes on to live with the author gods on Mount Olympus.
I, on the other hand, have failed to produce a Novel. I have started a few, mind you, but never gotten past the first chapter. Why is this, you ask? Because I suck at writing fiction. Truly. My various false starts could win prizes in those contests for the worst prose ever written. You think I’m joking. Don’t make me get out the one where it took me 200 words to describe a girl sewing a seam on a turquoise pantsuit.
My failure is all the more ironic because I love to read good fiction. I obviously just can’t produce my own. I stand in awe of those geniuses who can weave a tale believable enough to draw me in and fantastic enough to grant escape from reality. My awe increases with every crappy opening line that I produce. It’s like watching a ballet where the male dancers effortlessly pick up their partners and spin them around their heads, then going home and trying to lift another person a few feet off the ground and realizing that in reality, IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD. Sure most prima ballerinas weigh about 80 pounds, but still, lifting them, let alone lifting them gracefully, is a positively Herculean feat. Or at least it would be if Hercules wore tights.
My hang-up with writing a novel is in managing the mundane details. Case in point: my heroine awakes in a psychiatric ward and somehow I have to get her down the hall to another room where something significant will happen to her. But first she has to get out of bed, get dressed (this could take some time, let’s hope she doesn’t want to wear the turquoise pantsuit), find a reason to go to the other room, and walk all the way there. But wait, she hasn’t combed her hair this morning. She can’t encounter significance with bed-hair. And while we’re at it, let’s have her brush her teeth. That’s critical too. Oh wait, she hasn’t used the toilet yet. Hmmm, how does one write eloquently about urination? By this point, I’ve written several pages, bored myself into a coma and still have yet to get my heroine out of her room. Suddenly, she takes matters into her own hands and teleports herself out of the hospital onto a waiting spacecraft where she commands her alien crew to get the heck away from this dullest of all planets and this dullest of all pseudo-authors. They shoot off into space and I am left without a heroine.
I can’t write novels because I feel compelled to tell the truth. And the truth is: life is full of mundane details. Even if I created the world’s most fascinating character and came up with adventures galore for her to encounter, I would just have to work too hard to get her away from the bathroom.
Perhaps this is why I am so fond of Degas. After 400 years of Venuses, he painted women washing their armpits. He hired models and told them not to pose but instead had them wander around his studio, bathe, scratch their backs and comb their hair. Degas was also drawn to the ballet, but he painted the dancers stretching and schlepping around backstage and yawning from sheer boredom in the midst of tedious rehearsals. He told the truth even if the truth was insignificant. He wanted to paint exactly what he saw. And Degas saw that most of life is less than striking, new or unusual. In other words, most of life is far from novel.