What I Learned From Writing A Novel

Writing a novel is strange and lonely business. It doesn’t help that most people don’t write novels–to do so is an activity that is rare and slightly bizarre, something time consuming and attention devouring that doesn’t fit in well with relationships, work, or really–any life commitment of any kind.

Not to mention that you don’t get paid for it (usually) and that there is no guaranteed outcome of any sort. It may suck. It may be very good. It may be okay. Discerning which category of the above it falls into is incredibly difficult, partially because it’s such a subjective art form, but also because it’s so fucking hard to actually get real human beings to read your work.

“Hey, want to read my first sci fi novel?” can elicit as many crickets chirping as a suburban marsh on a hot summer night.

About a year ago, I sat down and decided I was going to write a book. I’ve said this a few times, but for some reason, it stuck when I thought about it in October of 2016. Maybe it was too much coffee, or maybe it was the fact that I was readily approaching 28 with no manuscript in sight. I kept telling myself I’d get it done by that year. Something about the year 28 seemed foreboding, impossible, a demarcation that was a little too close to something real and important. And without nailing this one simple achievement for a writer, it seemed like not hitting that milestone would be a legitimization of failure.

Somehow, that coffee all kicked in and I got 60 pages into a story about a young man who visited a tower of some sort on a frequent basis. This was set in the future (of course :))

Pretend you’re in a bar with me and I’ve drank enough to actually explain the plot to you while I’m waving my hands around like a tour guide or an overzealous salesman:

“So, he goes to this tower and he has information beamed at his head, and he basically learns from interactive hallucinations that form in his mind. In this world, nobody seems cognizant of any of the events that happen in our world, even though this story is set on Earth, in North America, and not too far in the future. People have chips implanted in their brains that allow them to receive these information transmissions from the tower that seem to be related to education of some kind. But what’s really going on exactly is anyone’s guess.

It comes to pass that through some nefarious dealings, a government official effectively wipes the operating system of every human being in America. And starts from scratch. The chips acts as a back door into people’s brains that allows for complete destruction of neuronal networks in the hippocampus and other areas associated with memory in the brain. As a result, culture is gone, memory is gone, family is gone, music is gone, art is gone.”

Maybe now you want a shot? My treat reader, my treat.

Anyway, I left some things behind for my reader, but most of what my protagonist steps through is a pretty bleak place. And figuring out what was going to be in there was not easy in any way.  I once learned in a novel writing course at Hofstra that writing a novel is like “Driving a car through a thick fog with highbeams on. You can see just enough so that you don’t crash, but not enough to really see where you’re going.” Let’s just say that was paraphrased more than slightly, but that’s the gist of it.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months as I kept going and slowly got closer. It was exhausting, and if it reminded me of anything, it was the intellectual equivalent of doing a plank or pushup position for too long. All you wanted to do was stop, but you knew that if you kept going, you would reap some vague reward somewhere, and it was vaguely satisfying in some way that got better as you stayed in the pose. Somehow, eventually, I made it through the book, all 205 pages of it. And at the end I stood impatiently looking in the mirror for the intellectual equivalent of those abs and triceps. Maybe I hadn’t done enough?

I thought I would feel different. I thought I would feel accomplished. I thought I would feel like a “legitimate writer”.  But it came to pass that I felt virtually no different than I had before, no more secure than I had before, and no more certain of my future as a writer than I had before. Just as I hadn’t really felt different when I lost my virginity, turned 21, or achieved any other arbitrary milestone in life. Nothing.

Without structure, an agent, readers, a publisher, it is certainly difficult to evaluate the quality of your work and vet the legitimacy of it as an author. The anxiety is compounded if it’s your first book and you’re trying to establish yourself as something real. Knowing when to push your work onto others, and out into the world, is excruciatingly difficult. Something as intimate and committed as long form writing, as soul-revealing and as permanent, is incredibly hard to let into the wild.

A song can be ephemeral or funny, a poem can be short, but a book–it’s hard to act like a book was not supposed to be serious. It’s hard to pretend you don’t care or that it’s not important, or that you were just joking around. It’s a fucking book after all. It’s hard to distance yourself from something that’s over 60,000 words long, even if you want to. It’s your fault! You wrote it!

I learned that art is something you really can only do for yourself. There may be times or situations where your art will allow you to acquire material resources or connect with large numbers of people (the two usually go hand in hand) but that dream is reserved for a very small group of people that are among the best in their respective fields. It’s not impossible for you to achieve that, and indeed, I am still trying to do so, but with a more than tacit reservation that it may not happen.  If you’re not doing art for yourself, you may be wasting your time, because in all likelihood, you are probably the only one who is going to be consuming it.

Every finished work without a paycheck or interest (whether at your gallery or poetry reading or film screening, it’s all the same) is a subtle and growing reminder that there may never be that payoff you dream about so often on the way to work. The more that happens, a kind of terrible gravity begins to take shape, a feeling of dread so potent and true that you can’t turn away from it but you MUST turn away from it because the depression inherent in that truth is so powerful it will crack you in half like a lightning bolt. It is the worst kind of cognitive dissonance that I have ever felt.  Ultimately, what it really involves is being forced by the imperfection of your own work to admit that you are just a regular person, and might never be rich or famous. And that maybe no one gives a fuck that you’re a writer or trying to be a writer. That you’re not special, and never will be. And that no one really cares either way.

At the same time, there is another piece of you that grows able to appreciate those accomplishments. There is a piece that appreciates what you’ve been able to do as a normal person with a job and a cat and a girlfriend and an apartment, someone who was able to create a work of something from nothing while other people were watching the Bachelor. To be fair, I watch the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, and I think they’re fine programs. But I only write after I’m done watching them.

I learned that writing, or making any kind of art, is one of the most difficult things you can ever do. It’s giving birth to an idea and a structure that has no rules. It’s completing an assignment with no rubric. It’s creating a world with no template or framework that has to stand up an intellectual and logical firmament that you create, and you’re dependent on your own skills to ensure that it functions properly and convincingly. And all the while you’re your own worst enemy and critic, picking apart your foundations as you lay them, rearranging them, and then putting them back. It’s a wonder people can finish anything at all.

In the end, I think I learned that I’m not thrilled with my book, but I am happy I finished one. I think I learned that there is no escape from yourself and your skills in a pursuit that is limited and contingent on those skills.

Ultimately, I guess I learned where I am and what’s really up with my writing ability and the status of my writing career, and that kind of scared me. It was the ultimate self evaluation, when it comes down to it.

But now that I know where I stand, all I can do is keep writing.

-Ryan

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