A few years ago, in a moment of white-hot inspiration, I wrote the climactic scene of a book I had only half finished. The novel is a love story, and at that point, one of the few things I knew about how it would end was that one of the characters would reveal a deep and embarrassing secret he’d been holding back since the beginning.
So I wrote a scene in which the two characters, a man and a woman, are in bed. It’s early morning and the guy is awakened by the crying of one of the woman’s children by her first husband. Her kids do not want this guy in their mother’s bed, but now in the middle of the night, he handles her child’s distress surprisingly well, and when he returns to her bed, one of the big questions of the book—Can this man enter this woman’s life without destroying it?—seems to have been answered. The affair they’re having, which at first seems so self-destructive, might just work. She’s turned on by his domesticity, he’s turned on by the fact that he might not be so wrong for her after all. Things are getting steamy—and then the secret comes tumbling out.
I loved the scene’s intimacy, its rawness. I also loved the fact that it existed. The rest of the book was barely crawling along, and much of what I was writing on any given day kind of sucked, but I had this great scene in the bank, just waiting for me to catch up to it.
Then this summer, after I turned in my final grades, I had an unexpected burst of productivity—30 new pages in 30 days, which is light speed for me—and all of a sudden, I’d caught up with my climactic bedroom scene. With a silent internal drumroll, I scrolled down to the pages I’d written so long ago, and almost immediately I caught the strong odor of bullshit wafting up from my laptop screen.
God, it was bad. Indescribably bad. The kind of bad where—if I hadn’t written it myself—its badness would have cracked me up. The sex stuff was unreadable, all throbbing organs and clotted moans, but what really what got the flop sweat rolling was the scene’s soul-deadening literalness. My characters were lying there in bed, horny as rabbits, and for two or three pages they explained the meaning of the book to each other. And then, oh, the guy let slip the big bad secret for no very good reason and everything went to hell.
If you’re a writer not spoiled by genius, you’ve had a few of these moments: You’re cruising along, seeing your book through the eyes of your characters, and then one day, the lens shifts so you can view your work through a potential reader’s eyes—and what you see is what total shit you’ve written.
Anne Lamott touches on this in her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from her writer’s guide Bird by Bird. Amateurs, Lamott writes, imagine that great writers sit down each morning, flip some magic inner switch, and start cranking out deathless prose. Real writers recognize this as a fantasy and plow through their miserably bad first drafts by convincing themselves no one will ever see them:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. … If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
For Lamott, the enemy of good writing is perfectionism, and the trick to overcoming perfectionism is giving yourself permission to write badly. She’s right, of course. She’s right, too, that you can dial down performance anxiety by breaking an overwhelming task, such as writing a novel, into a series of smaller, discrete tasks—short assignments, she calls them. She says that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind herself that she doesn’t have to write a whole book today, just one solid paragraph, one good physical description—enough to fill a one-inch picture frame, not a wall-size canvas.
Like Lamott, I’m a recovering alcoholic, so when I first read Bird by Bird years ago I recognized much of her writing advice as reconstituted 12-step wisdom. What is “shitty first drafts” but another way of saying “Fake it till you make it”? What is Lamott’s one-inch picture frame but a handy reminder to take it one day at a time?
Which might make you think I’d heed her advice. But I didn’t. For decades, when I read a story of mine that didn’t work, I didn’t break out my one-inch picture frame and focus on just getting one paragraph right that day. No, in those painful moments of clarity when I saw my own work not as I wanted it to be but as it was, I panicked. The failure wasn’t a few bad sentences or a story twist that rang false. The failure was me. I had no business trying to be a writer, and the fact that I kept writing in the face of incontrovertible evidence that I could not, in fact, write was not merely stupid, but a species of moral failure. I wasn’t just guilty of writing badly. I was a fraud, a man living a lie.
[CW: Brief description of suicidal ideation]
I’ll spare you the description of all the dark places this kind of thinking took me. Suffice to say that for many years I soothed myself to sleep at night by imagining my own death. Sometimes I pictured putting a shotgun to my chest and pulling the trigger. Other nights I mapped out, in exquisite detail: the route to the nearest high bridge. This was, I want to make clear, purely an act of imagination. I’ve never owned a firearm, and I never once stood on a bridge deciding whether to jump. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I wanted, for one blessed moment, not to be me. And since being some other person wasn’t physically possible, the next most soothing option was to imagine that I had ceased to exist.
But that isn’t the really weird part. The really weird part is that it worked. After a few lonely minutes feeling the bullet going into my chest, or picturing the long walk out to the center of a very high bridge, I could imagine myself as no longer existing. And then I could sleep.
As you might imagine, this played havoc with my writing life. I wrote defensively. The goal was less to write well than it was to avoid writing so badly that it would make me want to jump off a high bridge. I have a whole shelf full of stories, some of which have appeared in literary magazines, whose chief virtue is that they aren’t bad. They aren’t good, either, mind you. They’re lifeless and safe. A number of them are plainly autobiographical, yet there’s virtually nothing of me in them. That guy soothing himself to sleep by imagining a shotgun shell entering his chest? Nowhere to be found. The central character in those stories shares a family resemblance to me, with my fears and desires and vanities, but he’s never in real danger. He’s safe. The prose is safe. The whole thing is a sealed system cleansed of the impurities of real life, the sole purpose of which is to prove to the world that I’m not a bad writer.
I spent years doing this, alternating between writing airless works of fiction whose purpose was to not embarrass me and shards of more daring things that embarrassed me so much I never finished them. And then the worst possible thing happened: I finished a novel. This novel found an agent and this agent sent it to 20 editors at reputable publishing houses, who responded with 20 variations on “no.”
Let me pause here to state the obvious: Failing to sell a novel is pretty much the dictionary definition of a First World problem. When it was all over, I still had a job. My marriage was intact. I had a roof over my head and a fridge full of food. My kid still loved me. But as it was happening to me, failing to sell a book didn’t feel like a First World problem. It felt like a kind of death. The drama I’d enacted night after night as I aimed an imaginary shotgun at my heart was, for about six months, enacted each morning as I checked my phone and found yet another email from my agent forwarding yet another politely worded rejection from yet another New York editor.
Good morning. Boom. Dead. Repeat times 20.
But that’s not the really weird part. Of course those rejections felt like a kind of death. I worked for five years on that book. Before that, I spent another 10 years writing bad stories and parts of failed novels. I had presented my life’s work to the world, and the world took a good hard look and passed. It hurt like hell. The really weird part is how eerily that experience mirrored my imaginary suicides. I felt like I had died, over and over, but I wasn’t actually dead. I checked my phone and felt the shotgun shell strike bone, but then I put down my phone and five minutes later I was pouring my son some cereal. And when it was all over, I felt oddly free.
I don’t want to oversell this. After my novel failed to sell, it sent me down a dark spiral of obsessively revising an obviously failed novel and toying with the idea of publishing it myself so that my mother and seven of her closest friends might download it off Amazon. This went on for years. But then about a year ago, around the time I stopped trying to fix my broken novel, it hit me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d soothed myself to sleep by imagining my own death. I didn’t need the act of imagination any more. The deed had been done by 20 editors in New York. Failing to sell my book killed the part of me that still believed, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that someday I was going to be a famous writer. And to my astonishment, this realization set me free.
This has not, interestingly, made me a better writer. That’s one of the great lessons of sobriety, too, as it happens. Getting sober doesn’t make you a better person. Sober people like to pretend otherwise, but sit in a meeting sometime—it’s just as full of assholes and morons as any other room you could wander into. All getting sober does is stop you from drinking and using drugs. The rest of your problems are still there, same as they ever were.
So when my novel didn’t sell, I was not magically reborn as a better writer. It’s true that I write less defensively now, and I’m much better at punching holes in those sealed narrative ecosystems to let the air in. But I’m still painfully slow, and I still write sex scenes full of throbbing organs and clotted moans in which the characters spend the better part of two pages explaining the themes of the book to each other. What’s different is that I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve failed. Not metaphorically. Not in some complex psychological way. I spent five years writing a book, poured my heart and soul into the thing, and no one wanted to buy it. What can they do to me now? Turn down this book? Take a number, dudes. If my new book doesn’t sell, I’ll feel bad for a while, because a failed novel is a kind of death, but then I’ll start working on another one. Because this is what I do. I’m a writer. I write books not because it’s going to make me famous but because writing books makes me feel alive.
So a few weeks ago, when I read over that horrible climactic bedroom scene and smelled the ripe fragrance of trite, overwritten bullshit rising from my laptop, a wave of panic still coursed through me. My pulse quickened, prickles of sweat broke out across my scalp, and for just a moment, I thought about finding a nice high bridge and taking a swan dive into oblivion. But then I logged onto Facebook to post a self-deprecating remark about how embarrassing it is to read over a scene you wrote years ago and realize it’s trite, overwritten bullshit. Then I backed up about 30 pages in the manuscript, where the prose was bad, but manageably so, and got back to work.
Image: Flickr/Christopher Drexel