by James A Zarzana
“It’s always too soon to quit.” - Rudy
Lately, I have been thinking about the madness it takes to start writing a novel and see it through to its completion. It takes all the usual preliminary work: an outline, several character sketches, months of drafting, countless months of editing. Then, the text needs all the publishing aspects: cover design, interior layout, back cover comments. It’s not something to whip out in an afternoon.
“Be patient with the wait,” Oprah reminds us. And Seamus Heaney tells us, “Getting started, keeping going, getting started again—in art and life, it seems to me, is the essential rhythm.”
It is the staying with the text that makes it happen. Writing a novel, a history, a biography, is god-awful work. Endless work. I know this sounds pity-party, but these miraculous marvels readers enjoy don’t float onto the shelves of our libraries as though writers produced them as easily as we can download them to a Kindle. “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work,” Anthony Powell noted. And he’s the author of a twelve-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time. No easy feat taking characters from their school days in the 1920s up through the 1960s.
It is by not paying attention to all the pitfalls and dead ends that makes this work possible. The writer has to ignore the obvious drudgery and love the task—every part of it, from the printer jamming, to the need to edit a chapter again, to the desire to read the work aloud to hear the dialog clearly. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead sort of tommyrot.
Thankless, often. This isn’t happening at your local coffee shop. It happens in your writing space, and with any luck, all fledging writers have a dedicated writing space. “A room of your own with a lock on the door,” as Virginia Woolf tells us. Maybe we have to settle for a corner of some room. Or even a spot under the stairs—a nice literary echo in that. Somewhere that is hers or his alone. The space is ours. The mess is ours. That special ambiance is ours. Like Fanny Price at Mansfield Park living in unheated rooms, but with a desk and ample paper for writing when the ink isn’t frozen.
And yet, it still remains folly that drives us all forward. What is it about our task that commands and holds our collective attentions? Is it our unique characters? Or those final, infuriating plot twists? How that kiss might feel if pressed to our cheek? It is all senseless, irrational behavior.
Better to take up knitting or baking or jigsaw puzzles. . . anything with defined parameters and a set goal line. I hear bowling is really nice. Something measurable that would please the Board of Teaching. Walking your dog should bring you back home with a dog, ideally, the same one you started out with. That’s not always the case with writing. I started a novel with a twelve-year-old boy who promptly told me he was man, and I had better get to revising quickly because he was grown up now and not putting up with idle youth again.
And how about this? The writer reads another novel. Then, he says to himself, I can use this particular technique in my own work. Or another writer realizes this would be a greater way to run her still-in-draft-form, ho-hum love story. Or that the shading of that just-read dialog—the hesitation captured in words, the nuance the speaker utters but her listener misses, the humor in the dry reply—they are all too tempting not to knead into our own story.
And yet, it all remains imprudent, reckless, foolhardy.
“With the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly,” T. S. Eliot muses.
How do you take a blank sheet of paper and start writing something vaguely about hobbits and a magic ring and a dragon hoard without being slightly off the beam? Is your colleague down the hallway going to listen to that?
Or a boy—just your average, gawky preteen with broken glasses—who is a wizard but who doesn’t even know what the hell a wizard is. And that once an obsessed evil wizard tried and failed to kill this boy who is a good wizard. The priest in the confessional probably thought you came to talk over your sins.
A whale. A white whale. A lunatic captain. A naïve sailor jotting it all down. Does that work as scintillating dinner conversation?
Young girl, smart but not the most attractive at the ball. But light on her feet, and quick with a quip, and deadly smart, and boasting a wonderful smile. Snubbed at a dance. Then, in the end, capturing the heart of the man who snubbed her. . . and then promptly rejecting this same man’s proclamations of love. You going to mention that in your car pool? Again?
How do you justify setting all these ideas down? Completely? Smoothly? That task is at least a year or two in the making. With no guarantee that anyone at all will ever read your words anyway. What do you say to your spouse or mother or children? Does your family plot to lock you up? Take away your computer and printer? Stop buying you inkjets? Make you do the dishes for a change?
Or worse yet, humor you. That’s nice, dear. Yes, pretend it’s the Panama Canal, bury them in a basement, dear.
It’s all madness. Infuriating madness.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. I think. Or maybe a high school English teacher. Or a prof that first year in college. Or the one novel we love and can’t stop rereading.
Madness and folly! Goats and monkeys! Yet, we go on.
Editors note: This short essay was written by James Zarzana about the struggle of being a writer. Stayed tuned for an interview with him next week!