Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy
The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.
I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.
Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.
Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.
I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.
I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.
Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.
In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.
It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.
I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?