A Return to Ignorance: To Write a Novel You’ve Got to be Dumb

 

I cannot pretend to know anything about writing books. I’ve only ‘finished’ one novel. But like a man who’s scaled a mountain, I can talk about climbing.

That novel took me seven years to write, not all at once, but in fits and starts as life was happening around me with all its attendant chaos.

At the time finishing was everything. Just get it done. Draft after draft.  Just get it done. Polish as you go along. Snip here, snip there, don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense, you’ll fix it later. I was a younger man then. The thrill of writing a novel, being spurred on by a powerful literary agent who could sell ice to eskimos, knowing that my story was strong and unique – that was enough. Plus there was the Oprah Winfrey lottery ticket that, at the time, was the subtext for any new writer. Maybe, just maybe, I’d hit it big.

Everything has changed now. I’m older, much wiser, and there’s been a tectonic shift in the publishing world. My first novel was sold to Harper/Perennial. But despite some really good reviews and great reader feedback, it didn’t sell well enough to launch a career. Welcome to the Land of Novelists.

The thing is, I did hit the jackpot. I just didn’t know it. I wrote a good book. I found a great agent (the first one dropped me after the initial round of rejections) and I was picked up by a reputable publishing house. That’s a win. Readers loved the book. I learned so much. I got to read at Powell’s. Count your blessings kid.

It’s been seven years since the release of Serpent Box, and in that time I’ve written a number of short stories and the first draft of a manuscript for a novel titled The Earth is All That Lasts. It’s an ambitious book set in the American West in the years just before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. My protagonist, a teenage boy known by his familial name of Hawthorn, raised by the Sioux, embarks on a journey to discover his origins and true name. I wrote the first 1500 words on Twitter after having read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, wondering why there aren’t any good old-fashioned adventure stories anymore.

Great, you’re thinking. When are we going to see this book? Well here’s the thing: I’m riddled with doubt and have been nursing a crisis of faith for three years in which I have been utterly frozen as I await direction from God, or The Great Spirit, or some other deity. I alternate between loving what I wrote and despising it. The first draft is complete but it needs a lot of revision, so it’s sitting there on a shelf waiting to be restored like an old car under a tarp in a shed.

I am asking myself, should I complete the revisions and finish this novel? But what’s the alternative? Can I just abandon it? Hundreds of hours of work? It’s not commercial, an anachronism really, and there’s no longer that Oprah dream. What is it that I want from this novel? Any novel? How do I choose what I dedicate a huge chunk of my life to? How do I know if it’s worth all the effort? Why do I write novels at all?

Let me tell you what the little voice says:

You told yourself it was never about the money, or the fame, or the cachet. You told yourself that writing is about growing and, ultimately, knowing. You told yourself that publishing is never the end but the means, that going public is the only way to get to the truth because only an audience of so-called strangers will keep you honest. You told yourself that every story is a form of autobiography, talk-therapy between your subconscious and the self that can only waken through the slow process of discovery that each story painstakingly requires. You told yourself that writing isn’t about a career but a way of living – with doubt, with pain, with all the hypocrisies of being human. You told yourself that writing is never about explanations but reconciliation, with all your memories, observations and beliefs.

And it’s true, that the stories choose you. That they come to you for a reason which you can’t possibly understand until you’ve ingested them, lived with them in your body and passed them, like a kidney stone the size of a coffee bean.

This, this feeling of angst, dread, confusion, doubt, and discomfort, this is that kidney stone. Of course this book is demanding that I face myself, that I stare down defeat and persevere. Why do I even question this? The question is the signpost that affirms. I’m on the right road.

With Serpent Box I pushed through on faith alone. I finished because to not finish was as unthinkable as suicide. The further I climbed up that mountain the easier it got to convince myself I was that much closer to the top. Ignorance in such endeavors truly is your best friend. I must return to ignorance. Because there is no knowing. Surety is arrogance. This is a process that runs on doubt. The struggle feeds the work. You know this. The temptation to give up is a sure sign that you’re in the right place at the right time. Remember to trust that initial instinct, that spark from which the story was born.

So how many novels does it take to be a novelist? Just one. Not the one on the shelf that’s sacrosanct and bound, but the one gestating inside you, pecking away at you with its egg-tooth.

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4 thoughts on “A Return to Ignorance: To Write a Novel You’ve Got to be Dumb

  1. Ah yes, the agony…should I go on or should I turn back? It’s all about change, no? The moving forward into the unknown…faith. I’ve heard it said that we stay in shit because it’s warm and and familiar, while change is cold and forbidding. Chaos is much more tangible…I can get in there and dirty my hands, and complain the whole time…but it’s familiar and known, even as it slowly degrades my humanity, like a telomere that deteriorates with the passage of time. I’ve followed your blog for a long time, and count myself as an admirer. I may not declare it often enough, but many times I find lurking satisfying. It’s a selfish reason, lazy even, but that I look forward to reading a new piece from you is tribute enough, I think. It may not be fair to you, but there it is. I know it takes another to point our virtues. If we say I have courage, it sounds haughty, but when someone else says, “you’re so courageous”, it’s humbling. Joyce Meyer said it best: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” I hope you don’t tire of exercising you gift and sharing it with us, with me.

  2. David Mitchell: “If you could email your 20-year-old self about what was ahead, what would you tell him? Or would you tell him nothing and just let him get on with it?”

    Brian Eno: I think I’d say, “Put out as much as you can. It doesn’t do anything sitting on a shelf.” My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it — “It’s not quite finished yet,” ”The mix will make all the difference,” etc. Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t really know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you.

    http://www.salon.com/2011/10/01/david_mitchell_brian_eno/

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