Monday, July 09, 2012

The Novel Question. Again.

Writing a novel. It's something Americans are supposed to try once in their lives so they can feel more truly American. For folks not inclined to write, it's usually a passing fancy — maybe a few pages before quitting. But for many actual writers it's a seductive, haunting dream that can lead to feelings of inadequacy, even self-torture. (I'd say that's pretty American, too.)

Now there are many kinds of writers who don't need to have their inclination and livelihood justified by some big, dumb fiction task: journalists, memoirists, historians, scientific researchers. I guess who I'm really talking about is your good old-fashioned creative scribbler.

These come in many flavors, too. There's your short story writer, your poet, your screenwriter and your playwright (like me). Of course it's not so set in stone. Most writers stretch out across these lines and try their hand at more than one form. That includes the greats: William Faulkner was a Hollywood screenwriter, Samuel Beckett wrote abstract fiction and James Joyce once had a play produced.

However, one thing you should notice about those names — I apologize for being male-heavy — is that they're all in the Writing Hall of Fame primarily for their novels. These giants have set some kind of magic bar in our minds that we must try to high jump. Forget the Eugene O'Neills and Seamus Heaneys on that hallowed Nobel roll call, there's just something about a novel that says Legit.

But, you say, isn't reproducing a moment in time with so many well-chosen words in a poem the hardest thing a writer can do? Well, this is America, and we like size and volume. There's all that sitting and typing and sighing when you write a novel. And it's BIG. That must mean it's the pinnacle achievement, right?

It does seem to at least be a lot of work, grinding out 500-plus words a day. For those of us looking in the mouth of the cave before entering such a project, a secret, insecure voice may begin to ask, "Do I really have what it takes for this Ultimate Test?"

Case in point: Erika and I had some "us time" yesterday and used it for a very sweet couples writing session. We don't get to do this often, so I was excited. Erika is working on a novel this summer. I'm finishing up my sixth play. Sounds like an accomplishment, sure. But side by side at the dining room table, I began to feel the insecurity bubble up. There was Erika, plugging away, writing so much. And so many of my own keystrokes were, well, for manual formatting in script style, not actual text. Gee whiz.

Despite all the work I've put into my writing since I "got serious" in late 2003, I've always had a bit of an inferiority complex — firstly, when I'm around fiction writers, and secondly, when these people have studied creative writing in college.

Aside from a few classes taken and a few how-to books read, I'm a self-taught playwright. People with creative writing degrees — my wife included — kind of intimidate me, at least until the chip on my shoulder speaks up. There's that nagging belief that these Chosen Few were selected by the Academy because they have the Talent, and they were given the Tools in an intensive setting, becoming holy vessels who transmute the human experience into deep, well-ordered, moving prose. Unlike me, a writer of stage directions, single-word answers, pauses and loud swear words.

For many years, we hosted a friends' writing group. And at some point in each evening, all the college-trained people, cigarettes and glasses of wine in hand, would slip into the classic Creative Writing School Group Feedback formation and riff for long minutes on plot mechanics and believability. I usually just stared into my can of Old Style and wondered if I should specify there's blood in my main character's vomit when I write that particular stage direction. These folks seemed to have something I didn't.

"Now, don't beat yourself up, Woundup," you might be saying right now, if you're nice. "You're probably not as bad as you think. If you can write plays, I bet you can write fiction, too." Well, as it turns out, I've written quite a lot of short fiction since I was a kid. I've even had some published. Just yesterday I was combing through the Word files on my first laptop and was shocked at the amount of unfinished prose. And you know, it wasn't all bad. Even the maudlin novel fragment written by 22-year-old me. Maybe I'm not a lost cause after all.

Erika is always telling me my chances of getting published/seen are better anyway as a fiction writer. And sadly, after five years of submitting my plays to theaters and contests, I see her point. Granted, I've had some unexpected success for an unproduced playwright just by doing mass mailing campaigns, but I can see now that I won't be produced unless I do it myself. And with two little kids, that's just not going to happen anytime soon.

So I feel conflicted. On the one hand I'm wrapping up work on what I believe is my best play yet and could do even better on the next one. I'm approaching the 10-year mark at my craft — a pretty important milestone as far as mastery and dedication go. On the other hand I want to challenge myself and try something demanding and new, have deeper conversations with my wife about writing and sip from that $4 wine once I'm admitted into the "real" writers circle. Kidding aside, a novel would indeed be a personal achievement, as a writer. And an American.

I know many people in the world are starving right now. I don't pretend my dilemma is an important one. I'm just thankful I can find the time to write. That said, I have a new idea for a story about four young people. By September I'll know if it involves long blocks of descriptive text or blood-tinged stage vomit. Wish me luck.

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