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art & anxiety

I am writing a novel, but you knew that.

Everyone who knows me knows I am writing a novel. It has been many years. I have written it while I was grieving, and I have written it while I was falling in love. There were fat years, where I stayed up with it until the sun started peeking over my windowsill. This has been a lean year, a year full of all kinds of shock and all kinds of reckoning, a world crisis year, a family crisis year, one of the most demanding and taxing years of my professional life. In many ways, it was a long dark winter.

Who was it that said writing a novel is like driving a car at night? That you would only be able to see as far as the headlights, but you could make it the whole way there like that. Was it E.L. Doctorow? Or E.M. Forster? Either way, how optimistic of him. I always say writing a novel is like swimming in a lake with heavy boots on. I know where I’m going, and I know how to get there, but it’s exhausting and I can’t shake the feeling that I should be going faster.

Put plainly, this project is a cat and not a dog. I can’t coax it into my lap. It doesn’t always want to spend time together when I do. It might bring me a gift but it might also nudge my coffee off my desk. Steinbeck once wrote to his editor while drafting East of Eden: “This book has pups!” It’s true; sometimes the more work you put in, the more the work multiplies. The farther you swim, the farther the shore seems. And writing is such a solitary activity. All those years of being told by teachers and peers that you write well land you in an empty room. You’re in there with the door closed, hoping to realize your precious secret vision. No one is telling you that you’re on the right track. You punctuate the literary magazine rejections trickling into your inbox with blind stabs at the keyboard.

But then cats can be so loving, too, can’t they? My project rewards me so generously when it rewards me, the way a cat does when she kneads your skin or shows you her belly or falls asleep curled in your lap. What a dopamine hit to find the perfect word, or have a sudden revelation, or feel the satisfying snap of the solution to a plot problem you’d been puzzling over for months.

I’ve been turning that old quote over in my head this past year: “It does not matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop.” Yes, that’s me, over here clutching the wisdom of Confucius to ward off my ennui about my novel-in-progress. When I started teaching full-time, I used to say: “I’m young! I can do both!” Now I am not-as-young and I'm moving a lot slower.

I’ve tried so many ways to spice it up, a suitor relentlessly courting her muse. I’ve visited special places specifically to write there, whether that be an afternoon at my favorite coffee-shop or a week in a foreign country. I’ve written in the mornings. I’ve used a timer. I’ve enrolled in novel-writing courses ($$!). I’ve gotten a computer program to hold me to a daily word count. I’ve seen a psychic about it, and listened back to the recording of her clairvoyant reassurance dozens of times. I’ve made altars: notes from mentors, feathers and shells. The antique glass rosary beads from my mother draped around the voodoo doll from my father. I’ve written myself so many letters over the years: you can do this, you’re already doing this, your inner critic is a loud liar.

I expressed to my therapist recently my dread that my project will abandon ship because I’m not working fast enough, that it will flutter over to some other artist and I’ll read a lukewarm review of it in the Times and turn right into stone.

“Why do you keep working on this book,” she asked me, “in spite of that fear?”

Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I want to read this exact book about a 1940s carnival traveling the American countryside. And not to bury the lede, but the more I learn about the weird world where my characters live, the cooler it becomes. The house-trucks the strongman builds for each member of the show. The failing New York City tattoo parlor. The ghoulish glow of a disgraced doctor’s basement laboratory. The blind tailor’s workshop. The witch’s hut. The suburban brothel. I want very badly to share what it’s like in this place that I’m exploring alone all the time.

I think about all of this, and then I have to admit to myself with a leaden resignation: after you’re done with it, in all likelihood, you will want to do it again.

In another letter to his editor, Steinbeck describes writing as “a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labors and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold on to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

Today feels like a good day to write myself another letter of encouragement. Here’s to time well-spent.


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