Monday, March 19, 2007

Why I cannot write a novel

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.

22 comments:

Karen said...

God, how I wish I'd written that essay. It's perfect.

Luisa Perkins said...

This is a great post! Your writing is lovely; I think you *could* write a novel. In my experience, it's like running a marathon as opposed to a sprint or a 5K.

Have you looked at Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer? I have found it very helpful.

Radioactive Jam said...

Was Morgenstern's unabridged "The Princess Bride" published before Goldman shredded it? Inconceivable! Just find out which voice in your head is Morgenstern, and turn your inner Goldman loose on him. Problem solved!

Well except for all the writing of course. But still.

allysha said...

Well, Degas's paintings are just as beautiful if not more so than all the Venuses. So, maybe the mundane you write about is beautiful, too. You just need a good editor...

But I know what you mean, I have yet to conquer the Novel myself, but that doesn't mean I haven't thought about it, and made a few sorry attempts.

Kimberly said...

Far from novel...I love that line.

I have the exact same problem as you.

My suggestion/decision...don't write fiction. =P Because you are a superb non-fiction writer whose book I would buy in a heart beat.

Andrea said...

Hey...it's a start....
Who says you have to write a novel??

bubandpie said...

Your theory that truth-telling is fatal to the fiction writer fits nicely with the Oscar Wilde quote I was looking up today for a post I'm working on. To write fiction, a woman needs a room of her own - and the ability to lie. ;)

Dedee said...

I had two thoughts when I read this.

1--I also, cannot write the great American Novel. I can write talks, speeches, research papers and all that other gobbledygook, but I struggle with fiction. I can edit to my hearts content someone elses fiction, but as for coming up with an original story on my own? Hasn't happened yet.

2--Have you ever read the unabridged version of Les Miserables? That is detail in it's finest form. Maybe details aren't such a bad thing. . .

Jane said...

I think in a year or so, you will have a book with these posts! And, if you let Gabie edit, it could all work out just fine.

GRodenberg said...

write about what you know....you'd be surprised at how funny you can be with mundane motherhood/life experiences!

Cakes said...

ugh! I can't even write a baby book much less a novel!

just promise you'll keep writing here.

compulsive writer said...

I know exactly what you mean. Well said!

Klutzmom said...

Just keep writing. Your posts make me laugh, cry, sigh and think. I agree that they could work into a book that (or is it which?) would make wonderful, better than fiction reading.

Klutzmom said...

Just keep writing. Your posts make me laugh, cry, sigh and think. I agree that they could work into a book that (or is it which?) would make wonderful, better than fiction reading.

Klutzmom said...

AArrrgghhhhhhh! At first it wouldn't accept my comment and then it put it in twice . I can see that I still have some of the finer details of blogging to learn.
How does a person with dyslexia put in the "word verification?" I can barely handle it and I don't have that problem. It doesn't come under klutziness.
Anyway the suggetion to keep writing bears repeating so it's all okay.

scribbit said...

And my pain in this area is heightened all the more because of all the junk that is published. If I can't get someone to take my manuscript when I can see what does make it through the editorial gauntlet what does that say about my writing?

Every year there's a big statewide contest for creative writing and I'm working on my entries and it's hard finding time for the blog while I'm desperately trying to refine and edit something "serious."

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

Julie, you could be one of the those examples where people's blogs get published 'as is' because they're that good, or optioned to be tweaked, but are essentially the same.

I've sat down and written these novels you speak of. (Not that they're 'Great') and believe me once they're done, you don't know if you've wasted all that effort, anyway.

Your writing, as it stands, is Great.

eve said...

I'm with the marathon analogy, I know I could never run a marathon, I don't have the mental focus. Keep trying, you never know when it will click. Or maybe outline it all and fill in the blanks later?

Jenni said...

Hey, Faulkner didn't have a problem with detail. That was Hemingway.

I don't consider myself a writer (yet) either, but I don't think you have to be a novelist to join the illustrious ranks. Tell the truth! Find somebody with an amazing life and write it for them...there are so many amazing stories out there to be written, and the people who lived the stories aren't writing them because they don't feel they have the talent.

YOU, my friend, have the talent. Oozing, dripping, streaming from your pores...so go write for them!

Heth said...

As long as you keep typing on this blog, I will keep reading. I love how you write about daily mudane details and bring them to a glorious climax with some deeply-thought-out revelation. That doesn't even make sense, but you know what I mean. You ARE a writer, novel or not.

Jenni said...

Wonderful post! You *are* a writer even if you never do write that novel. I love your perspective on things, the way you open my eyes to see deeper into a familiar work of art, and the way you combine the two into the most beautiful essays.

And I love what the other Jenni said about Hemingway and Faulkner:o)

Mary-LUE said...

I know that everyone has to come to terms with what they consider "real" writing to be. Maybe you'll write a novel someday. I do have a suggestion. I would sooooooo read a book that was similar to what you do here: a collection of essays about life using paintings as points of reference. I know we bloggers tend to be quite the complimentary bunch, but really, what you are doing here is superb.