On Writing a Novel


Don’t talk to me, Edward Albee, about writing a novel. Don’t tell me that each writer has one genre in which he writes best. Don’t tell me that you “committed a novel once.” I won’t hear it. It’s too late. Instead I’m guilty of turning my ear the other way, listening to the provocative lies of those who have PUBLISHED a novel, those who have forgotten all the stinking years it took in a lifetime to concoct that first one, those who have found their voice, those whose characters speak to them with regularity and guide them down the primrose path to the Best Sellers List, or to becoming a faculty member in a brief residency MFA program, or to be introduced as a writer by their unsuspecting-up-to-this-point friends. Those writers are the ones responsible for hiding the truth of the matter from me, but like the dogged stubborn bluebottle fly I am, I’ve learned it on my own: writing a novel is a disease.

Thank goodness, in most cases it’s not terminal. At least not yet. Nor does it seem to be congenital, so maybe my grandchildren will never try it. It is, however, viral. You write a short story. You submit it to workshop. It’s so bad the participants don’t know what to say. So they say, oh, this would make a great novel. You need to write more about this. Or the workshop mentor will say of what you perceive is clearly a literary novel, oh, now this would be a great travel book—a Laverne and Shirley kind of top-down driving into the sunset. Duh. Once you’ve finished extending that short story into a blasted first novel-length thing; and every agent and editor of promise whose name you can choke out of every writer you know tells you what a talented writer you are but; or tells you the plot would be fabu except that; or tells you how sorry they are, duh, that what you’re writing doesn’t fit their list, those lists, those precious, highly sought for lists...

...well let me just say, thanks a lot to the whole lot of you. 

I’m working on the umpteenth revision of the second unpublished novel that has taken so long to compile that people I’ve mentioned have published and died. Or maybe not. I read Germaine Greer’s name in my ms. this week and tried to remember why in the world I included that allusion. Two days later I was eating lunch with my grandchildren who’d been to art camp at Space One Eleven and they wanted to go into What’s on Second, a store of things looking to be re-purposed. Call a spade, a spade: a second-hand store, for heaven’s sake. Each of us found an old book we wanted. The oldest with a year of architecture under his belt from Syracuse chose an old encyclopedia held together by a metal clamp. It was not the intrigue of the clamp but the paper itself that was of interest. He is going to paint over some pages for a collage. The ten-year-old chose a song book, The People’s Choir by E.S. Lorenz, to emulate the older cousin. That one cost me $2. In 1918, the year of its publication, it was a mere $1.25, postage extra. I discovered a paperback by—guess who—yes, some of this process is scary: Germaine Greer. Not that I need any help now getting through menopause. That’s a done deal. But maybe if I read it, just maybe, I thought I might remember the smashing idea I must have had for the plot of the novel when I included her name.

While I’ve been writing this novel, plants have been planted, bloomed, and disappeared entirely—so long ago that I didn’t even remember the name of the milk and wine lilies given to me by my sister until I ran across them in my novel.  The name alone though prompted more: they were lush with blossoms too heavy and sweet to stay upright, but threatened to drip right off the plant. Where were you Edward Albee when I started this novel? Why didn’t you stop me from gushing with your little provocative lines, so clean, so precise in their little jaggling, jarring conversations? Strike out all descriptions. Get rid of adjectives. Absolutely no adverbs. Better to be barren altogether like the spot where the lilies used to grow. Better to forget writing a novel.

I’m feeling a smidge better this morning. Sleep doth indeed knit up the raveled sleeve of care, thank you, William. My daughter reads O. She read me a quote from her latest copy, July 2013. The Best Books of Summer. “By the time I was 14, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled on it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

Ah, misery, how you do love company. Thank you, Stephen King. Now, where did I leave off in that revision...?


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