A Novel Approach, pt. 3, (Write for Love)

(Continued from yesterday.)

But enough about why you should abandon a project. Let’s talk instead about why you should stick with a project and then move on to how to go about doing it.

The best advice I have is that you should stick with a project because you love the project.

Steve Almond is one of my favorite writers. You may have heard of his books Candy Freak and Not That You Asked. They got some play on NPR a couple of years ago, and his short fiction collections—the most recent of which is called God Bless America—are wonderful. What I’m trying to say is read some Steve Almond before doing anything else today.

Steve Almond has a short book on writing called This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I plagiarize most of my advice on writing from it. One piece of advice that he gives in this book is that excessive emotional involvement is the whole point of writing.

In his words, “You didn’t become a writer for the money or the health insurance plan, did you? It wasn’t to make your parents proud. And if you turned to prose in the hopes of becoming famous, well then, brother, sister, you deserve more pity than contempt.”

As an aside, I should point out that he just said in three lines what it took me two pages to convey. Again, he’s a really good writer. And he goes on to speculate that the real reason most people become writers is that “certain volatile feelings went unexpressed in your family of origin and seeped into the groundwater and you are now hoping to articulate the most shameful of them via the wonders of fictive disguise.”

Later in the book, he puts this sentiment another way: “What should you be writing about? Anything you can’t get rid of by any other means.”

My interpretation of this is that you need to write about the things that won’t leave you alone, the things that keep you up at night. The ideas and issues and concerns that keep your head spinning when you know you should be focused on other things: the lesson you need to prepare for your next class, the meal you should be enjoying, the movie you just paid twenty dollars to see, traffic signals.

This was my experience for the first (and, so far, only) two novels I’ve completed. My first novel was about a suburban soccer mom who becomes addicted to cocaine and turns to dealing to support her habit. I didn’t want it to be a novel. In fact, it started out as a short story. But after I “finished” the story, I kept thinking about it. I created this character and stuck her in a terrible situation and just left her there. Would she get out? Would she clean up her life? And what about her daughters? How would they fare?

I kept telling myself to forget about it. I kept telling myself, “Don’t turn this into a novel. Because it’s not a novel. It’s a short story.”

And then one day, I just kind of shrugged and said, “Okay, who are we trying to kid? It’s a novel.”

Six years and who knows how many drafts later, it turned out that I was right. But I wouldn’t have been able to get through those six years and multiple drafts if not for the fact that the story I was telling kept drawing me back in. Even when I was sick of it and decided to put it aside for a while, I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t keep myself from going back. Something about the story made me want to keep returning until I was satisfied with it.

I had the same experience with my second novel. It was initially inspired by a personal tragedy. A friend of mine from high school committed suicide, and I learned about it a few months after the fact. It was something I couldn’t shake, and the feelings I was carrying around with me felt intensely private and painful, the kind of things I sure as hell wasn’t about to share with the world.

When the notion that these feelings might form the basis of something—I didn’t even want to call it a novel yet—occurred to me, I pushed the thought out of my head immediately. At the same time, though, I knew there was no escaping it. Writing this book was going to hurt a lot, I told myself. But I had to do it.

(Continued tomorrow.)

Writers Are Cool

I feel very fortunate to live in a region with a vibrant community of people who love to read and write. One of the great things about living in this kind of community is that I get a chance to see a lot of authors read and discuss their work. Last week alone, I had the opportunity to see Steve Almond read from his latest collection, God Bless America, at Germantown Academy, Robin Black and a handful of other writers speak on the subject of contemporary fiction at Bryn Mawr College, Beth Kephart read from her haunting new novel, You Are My Only, at the Radnor Library, and Chuck Palahniuk — well, it’s hard to describe what he did, but it involved inflatable brains, and it was wonderful — at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Obviously, this is a wide range of writers, each with different styles and interests, but what struck me about all of them is how really kind and thoughtful they all are. They’re just really nice people. At the end of each reading, the authors generally took time to answer questions from the audience, and when they did this, I got the sense that they were really listening to the questions and answering from the heart. I also got the sense that these authors not only love writing, but they love that people read their work as well — and thus feel indebted to their readers to some extent. To put it another way, I got the feeling that the respect between the readers and the authors was mutual.