The Writing Disease
Train Number #1–On Writing a Novel (you knew it was coming)
When I was a MFA student, I loved always having an excuse to get out of things I didn't want to do, such as certain social events. Since I had harrowing deadlines every three weeks for two years, I could always says, "Sorry, I can't come, I've got a school deadline." This always worked magically, with people taking pity on me and absolving me of all guilt. But for some reason, once I graduated from school and got out in the real world (a cold, hard shock for MFA students) this excuse no longer flew. Even though I was gainfully working on paying projects for clients. Somehow, being a student trumped all.
Flash forward six years (lord, has it really been that long?) and here I am finishing up my novel. My office is a terrible mess (I was going to post a photo but I can't, it is too embarrassing), important things are going undone, like picking up cleaning and sending cards, and I broke down and hired a house cleaner so that we didn't get a visit from the department of health. I dream of being able to actually concentrate on a whole book, start to finish, and not just peruse bits and pieces of nonfiction, and I have knitting projects I would love to work on. Emails go unanswered, and everything on my body widens and spreads as I spend hours at my desk. But it is all for a good cause–my novel.
Train Number #2–On reading The Midnight Disease
At bedtime, I am reading (at least in the 5 minute snippets I manage to focus before my eyes close and the book falls out of my hand) The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty. She is a neurologist who takes as her starting point hypergraphia, or the incurable writing disease. It is when people, often in a manic state, take up the pen and write pages or even volumes of florid prose. Through this lens, she examines the drive to write and create and it is fascinating reading which perhaps sheds a wee bit of light on Train #1.
What Flaherty says in the current chapter I am reading, is that creativity is ultimately judged on both its novelty (if it is same-old, same-old, where's the innovation?) and value (something that is "useful or illuminating") and that these standards are essentially socially defined. Says Flaherty, "Creativity is not the property of a work in isolation: novelty and value have to be defined in a relation to a social context. When I use a lever and fulcrum to move a rock in my garden, I don't get the creativity points that I would were I a Cro-Magnon."
So perhaps my messy office and tardy answers to email will be forgiven because they are in the service of art and my little Cro-Magnon mind has been creating something that will illuminate your lives. (I know writing novels doesn't fall into the category of useful innovation, especially in the case of Emma Jean, which is something I struggle with. Shouldn't I be spending all this time doing something real and important, like saving the world?
My measure of success for myself is whether or not I have written. I am not hypergraphic, but I am driven to write. I suspect many of you out there are, too. It is an interesting drive, and sometimes a frustrating one which is why I am enjoying reading The Midnight Disease, so that I can learn more about it.
And sometimes I wonder at what price the drive to write comes.
Are the hours that I spend at my desk worth it? Defining this from a social point of view the answer is, that depends. If I get an agent, a contract, and the book sells well, everyone will think I'm a fantastic, creative heroine. But if it doesn't, I'm just another poor sap who thought she had talent but didn't.
Here's what counts: never, ever in my life have I worked as hard on anything as I have this novel. I've written other novels before, but always stopped short of truly having a finished product I was proud of. I loved My MFA novel, a chapter of which was published last year, but I could never get it to a place where the whole thing hung together as a coherent work. It was close, but never quite made it. I knew there was more I needed to do to make it work but then I got so sick of working on it and the obstacles to revision seems so steep, that I've put it aside. The fire for it just isn't there anymore.
But Emma Jean is different. I am finishing up the eighth draft, and it was only a few days ago that I realized what one of the major themes of the novel is (for the record, it is: if its love, the Lord won't mind). With every draft I've gone deeper and deeper into Emma Jean's head and heart and strengthened the throughlines of the novel so they are nice and taut. Many a friend has urged me just to send what I have, that it is good enough, but I've come this far and I'm not going to quit now. There is a lot to be said for knowing when you are done.
If the novel never sells, I will have the satisfaction that for once in my life I have done all I could do with it I have done my best in every way. It feels really good to be able to say that, and though I'll be terribly disapointed if it doesn't sell, it will be enough.
And that, to me, is what the drive to write is all about.
The thought occurred to me as I was writing this post that I have a copy of The Midnight Disease to give away. Amazon sent me an extra copy (maybe I ordered it by accident, who knows) and this copy could be yours! Leave a comment on this post and I'll randomly pick a number for the winner. You can comment up until this Friday only because I'm leaving for Santa Fe next week and I will want to get it in the mail before then. Comment away!