16 November 2015

I'm Beginning to Think I Might Finish a Novel Someday

pen notebook flash cards flowers table
I've always enjoyed the physical act of writing. At four years old, I filled a notebook with a facsimile of cursive writing, a copy of what my older sisters were learning in school. Pages and pages were devoted to the same letter, because I'd nailed an e's elegant swoop and was diligently trying to recreate it. I failed. A few years later, I'd taken to typing up movie plots (mostly Star Wars). The word processor I used had a gimmick where it replaced common nouns with little pictures, so there were a lot of hand emojis in front of the name 'Solo' since well that's what I thought his name was. At thirteen my parents bought a new computer and I would take off my headphones, turn off my music while I typed because I liked the clack clack of the keyboard. At fifteen an English teacher read my poem about Apollo to the class (D:), and my parents read my rewrite of a scene from The Outsiders I'd done for a class assignment. They (my parents) bought me a laptop so that I could write in my room, but it couldn't connect to the internet and I couldn't get the floppy drive to work so anything I wrote on it would've been trapped on it forever until it died, so I didn't use it to write much. I used it to play Solitaire and Hearts. My grade twelve English teacher singled me out as the one kid in class who could write a brilliant final exam essay without a brainstorm outline or structure. He claimed he was jealous because I had a chance to make a living as a writer. But my writing is always better if I plan it first. At twenty-two I relearned cursive and started writing my first drafts out by hand and I've never stopped, since it highlights the roughness of the rough draft, which lowers stress; it reduces facebook distraction; and it makes the typing part so quick and painlessish that I feel like a rockstar of the mind. At twenty-four I bought myself a Macbook Pro and boy do its keys sing.

Adolescent-Jeff took a few stabs at fantasy novels, mostly Blizzard fanfiction, and iirc the result was usually fifty or so small notebook pages full of character development world-making and set-up. Then I would block. The start of the novel is supposed to be setting something up and I wasn't doing that. Unsure of where to take things, I'd stop writing and, unwritten, the characters would wander off to wherever stagnant ideas go to die.

There's a Dragonlance novel by Richard A. Knaak called The Citadel and when the bad guy is being defeated/killed/??? his fingernails get blown right off (spoiler!!), but that image isn't why it had a lasting impact on my psyche. I read it in two days! For two days I didn't do much else! It had a story. A story that started from the root of a main character (main characters? memory is a fickle beast) and branched out into side characters villains side plots and backstory before bringing it all back together into a blossoming curtain call finale. It felt precise and perfect and planned! Things that happened at the end made sense given things things that happened at the start, and all the things were gripping, surprising, brilliant. Past and present wove together in a tapestry of dialogue and action that grew naturally from vibrant characters (I was fourteen?? I haven't read it since.) Anyway my takeaway was that Richard A. Knaak was really smart and that The Citadel had an awe-inspiring inner logic and complexity that made it a compelling piece of fiction, and no way am I smart enough to pull something like that off. Reading it probably killed off one of my sproutling twigs of Diablo II fanfiction; after those two days, Theresa the mysterious assassin who was overcoming her dark past and confronting an even darker present wandered off to wherever stagnant ideas go to die.

My ideas are not hard to kill. Or at least make not happen. My thoughts are easy to stagnate. They like to stay in the idea world, or at least I like to keep them there. I don't feel a strong desire to share them: other people are judgmental and I already know how amazing my ideas are. They bounce around in my brain for a few months and then they shuffle on to a brain more receptive to the labour of creation. I am not receptive to the labour of creation. I hate stress and I tend to prefer not doing things to doing things. If school is any indicator, I am bad at big projects. I hid a grade seven report report on Egypt on the shelves because I didn't want the teacher seeing it. In grade nine I decided losing 25% of my math grade was preferable to finishing a project on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  My Career and Personal Planning and French teachers outsmarted me by calling my parents, forcing me scout out an Engineering program and give a five minute presentation on l'√©levage industriel (jokes on them I don't have a career plan and my French is not great lol sad joke). I'm currently working on my thesis and I spend most of my time feeling like garbage and not working on my thesis.  Big things are big and scary. They don't agree with my constitution. They trigger melancholia.

Up until now in this post, I've given my case against me ever writing a novel, or at least given some reasons (excuses) for why it hasn't happened yet: I don't do stories, other authors are a lot smarter than me, I don't do big projects, my ideas don't hang around, and I never even have any ideas in the first place.  But I'm starting to feel these obstacles weaken! Termites are eating away their load-bearing walls! So now I'd like to the make the argument that I could see myself finishing a novel one day because: I have an idea, this idea has lasted, I've learned to write long things, every author is bad at things, and stories are lame.

I have an idea. I want to write literary fantasy. The story: gold is discovered in a small mountain village and prospectors come looking for the gold. This does not go well for the locals because people are really into gold. A father and a daughter are two of said locals. She has magical powers and he loves his family. They escape the village, wander the continent, and try to find her mother and brother. Also, orcs that sing opera? Ideas everywhere!

This idea has lasted, especially the literary fantasy part. 2006-2007: Cormac McCarthy was trending hard (The Road, Oprah, No Country for Old Men, the Oscars, and so forth), I was working at a video store, my brain was deep into a reread of Blood Merdidian and I thought "What if like, this, but orcs?" And this early glimmer has stayed with me; it's only gotten stronger as I've discovered Thomas Pynchon (another "What if like, this, but orcs?" moment). I've harangued Chapters employees, thrift shops and book stores for literary fantasy (Rothfuss nah, R.R. Martin nah, Erikson mayyybe, Tolkien yeahh, an Octavia Butler novel is hard to find). I spent a summer in Barkerville and the gold rush aspect sprouted. I've never worked the idea out, so it hasn't gotten any bigger or more intricate over the years, but my brain hasn't forgotten it or stopped thinking it's pretty cool and novelable. That's something! The idea is maybe even uniqueish?

Plus if I don't think of the historical research and writerly mechanics behind the thrilling, startling way a Pynchon novel grabs my imagination and shoves me into his wild and wonderful, kind of familiar but also deeply strange world. And if I don't think of the way the way that McCarthy's tales of Appalachia force me to confront the truths of life violence love violence death and violence, then literary fantasy (in the sense that I mean) seems totally doable. (The research is a real doozy: what time period equivalent is my novel set in? what metal did they make their tea kettles out of? what did they eat while wandering the wilderness? what did they drink? what kinds of alcohol had been invented at that point? Also maybe profound dissatisfaction with fantasy novels is not the noblest motivation for writing a fantasy novel? but hey whatever floats my boat. If I can't read a thing that I want to read then I guess I'll have to write it myself.)

I've learned to write long things, because I've discovered that the more effort I put into a writing, the larger it gets. Grad school taught me that. Does it sound obvious? It's not! Or, it was not obvious to me! In my first year of university, when I typed the last sentence of an essay, it'd be done, i.e. if gun to the head I had to expand my six pages to ten, I'm not sure I'd've known how to do it. I'd get shot! Back then, proofreading was an emotional experience, one I avoided (reading my essays made me think, "how could I butcher such great thoughts with such dumb words?"), and I'd never tried revisiting assigned readings, or reading outside the syllabus. Grad school came with higher expectations from professors and a more professional mentality from me: I revised my essays because duh, I was expected to look beyond the course materials for my term papers, and I reread often because memory is a leaky cauldron. My first term paper hit the word count when I'd only made half of the points I wanted to make. The roughest draft of my thesis came with a half dozen further topics germinating in my mind and a half dozen unanswered objections.

Turns out, the more I plan, the more I read, the more I revise write and reread, the longer my writing gets. Details emerge. New tracks get laid for my train of thought. I develop new trains of thought. Ideas swell with content, and now that I've experienced pumping eight pages up into fifteen pages and fifteen up into forty-and-then-some, I feel confident a 50 000+ word novel would emerge if I put in the hard yards. Also, revising makes your writing sing, crap clauses turn into sleep sexy things. Structure emerges, creating the illusion that I knew what I was doing all along.

Every author is bad at things, even my top favourites! Tim Parks recently blogged about how he gets it when friends and folks don't like his favourite authors because they're not easy reads or they're extravagantly rhetorical, and he gets it when people are not into non-easy reads and extravagant rhetoric. I agree! I am excessively aware of the reasons other people might not feel as passionately about my top favourite authors as I do. But, further, I think there's big ole gaps in the writerly skillsets of even my favourites. I wouldn't call these gaps flaws because bibliographies are finite, so it's a little much to expect everything from a writer, but the gaps have a family resemblance to flaws.

Like, I don't think I've ever empathized with a Pynchon character, and being drunk on Pynchon starts to drag around page 200 in the same way that being drunk on drink starts to drag around hour four. Infinite Jest doesn't drag and oh god do I care about Hal Gately and Joelle, but it only tangentially addresses any kind of romantic love and it's short on sentences that I can underline and draw smiley faces next to. IJ's sentences aren't the light of my life or the fire of my kidneys.  Vladmir Nabokov brings the feelings and the fireworks, but he also brings an infinite disdain for his characters and tends to leave his novels short on the story front. Lolita is about the obvious thing and a road trip across America, but what else happens? I think a couple people die? (My gap-flaw as a reader is that I've only read white dudes. That's maybe more of an island of not-gap in an ocean of gap, but I'm working on it.) Virginia Woolf gets deep into her characters minds, makes them as separate as planets and as together as a solar system, but she has a way of ending the wayward story globs of Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts with a dramatic bang that rubs me the wrong way. Samuel Beckett is perfect. There is nothing missing from Watt. Nothing.

Here's a John Cage quote I like: "I certainly had no feeling for harmony and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said "You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through." So I said, "I'll bang my head against that wall." Love ur flaws. Take them on hot dates. Rub their feet. Nibble their earlobes. Flaws're your best half.

I know I'm bad at stuff writer-wise, but that's okay, because the best of the best are bad at stuff too. They make up for it by being really really good at other stuff, and maybe I'm good at some stuff too. I'm not great at stories--I wrote a short story in college and the prof's comment was that I mention a dozen possible avenues for plot but then I stopped suddenly without following through on any of said possible stories. But being bad at stories is ok because...

Stories are lame. They're lies! Life is more wayward glob than dope lego contraption. There's no clear start, no exciting branching off, no clean causal chain, no satisfying resolution. Plot is cheap. The last Harry Potter kept me reading--I wanted to find out what happens next!--and yeah that's an impressive skill and yeah I read 700 pages in three or four days, but at the end I felt empty. I felt gross. It's not a skill I have: story is beyond me. I'm quick to forget the events the climaxes and the resolutions of books and movies. I'm slow to forget the tone, the words, the characters, and the humour. And story is not a skill I want! Most of my favourite authors are not great with story, I don't think (I'm not a connoisseur of these things.) I will emulate those I love! I will embrace undrama.

tl;dr I am way behind on NaNoWriMo but I am stoked.

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