When a Novel Isn’t in the Cards

October 25, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

For years, my writing discipline was simple: I aimed for an hour a day. An obsessive reviser, I might spend that hour rearranging a single sentence. I also flitted shamelessly between projects. When I woke up buoyant and capable, I attacked my novel. When an odd idea or a lyrical phrase inspired me, I massaged it into a short story. I tinkered with one of my half-finished essays when keyed up about art or feminism, and sketched sad bears for my graphic novel when I was foggy-brained and sluggish. 

The downside to this approach: It took me ten years to finish my first book. My hard drive was a charnel ground of ideas that lived for a month, a week, a day. Sometimes my glacial pace made me feel stunted and stymied. I connected my sense of wasted potential with a story related by a friend’s 98-year-old grandmother. During the grandma’s girlhood, nuns warned that if a wife uses birth control, the babies she neglects to gestate will gather around the foot of her deathbed, asking why she failed to give them life. 

I imagined being haunted in this manner by unfinished books. 

Thus, my 2017 New Year’s Resolution: I will STAY FOCUSED on my second novel. I will stick to my outline. I will write 300 words a day, NO MATTER WHAT!  

In January, I typed with pride and ease. I wrapped up Chapter One of my novel confident I would join the ranks of writers who crank out a book a year. Maybe I’d even make some money! By February, sitting down to type felt like eating broccoli. Still, I stayed faithful to my outline, resisting the tantalizing allure of fresh side projects. When an idea for a cartoon or a humor piece popped up, I crushed it like a bug. In March, I began to suspect my novel was an inadequate vehicle toward beauty and truth.  Just keep typing, I told myself, battling hot waves of dread. Prove you can finish something! I gritted my teeth. I persisted. Day by day, my word count grew. 

In April, I felt like a zombie-slug in a world of perpetual night. I’ve always struggled with depression, but I hadn’t been such a fragile mess since my grim postpartum days. When a colleague threw a sharp word my way, I crumbled. When a grocery clerk gave me a disappointed look, I carried it in my body like a wound. Surveying the wilted lettuce in my crisper drew me to the conclusion that entropy rules the universe. A stubborn lid on a jar of peanut butter proved that life was just too hard.  A ceaseless refrain pounded in my head: What’s the point? What’s the point? What’s the point? 

A valid existential question. But not real conducive to getting stuff done.

My breaking point came when my brother’s fiancé offered me a tarot reading. I’m not big into crystals and fortune-telling. But when Laura brought out her gilt-rimmed deck, a flicker of hope rose in my chest. I had a burning question for those cards: How do I move forward as a writer?

Laura lit a candle and set out a bowl of amethyst and quartz. As she interpreted images of Queens, Cups, and Coins, I was startled by her prescience. The emerging spread reflected my inner life like a funhouse mirror. I reminded myself that I was a writer: capable of projecting a narrative onto any set of symbols. Still, I fervently awaited the “action,” card, which would hint at what to do next. I was determined to interpret any card as a goad to re-engage with my faltering book.

But when I flipped over my “action” card, I confronted a tableau of despair. My card—the Ten of Swords—depicted a dying man in an arid desert canyon. Swords pierced his side. A muscular black dog growled at his feet. Storm clouds roiled.

“This doesn’t look good,” I said.  

“Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean death,” Laura assured me, a little too eagerly. “This card just represents an ending. Like, you’ve tried, you’ve failed. It’s over. Time to give up and move on.” Laura smiled and threw up her hands. “So maybe you’re done with that novel.”

“No! I don’t need encouragement to quit. My whole problem is that I abandon ninety percent of what I start.” 

Laura gestured at the dying man on the sand.

“This guy? Needs to give up.”

 “He does have a lot of swords in his ribcage.”

“So lighten up! Work on something fun.”

I felt like a professor had given me permission to drop a class I was failing.  I was relieved, but ashamed by my lack of grit. In life outside writing, I kept my commitments. I was a responsible mom, a dedicated teacher, a faithful wife. I forced myself to exercise, meditate, and eat broccoli slaw. It had been eight years since I called in sick to work. When depression steeped me in a poisonous lake of nihilism, I prayed for help. Then I showed up to teach my class. 

As Laura collected her cards and crystals, I snapped a picture of the spread. “I have to say—I’m impressed by the narrative arc of this reading. There was even a twist.” I paused. “It had a much better plot than my novel.”

Laura laughed, and blew out the candle.

The day after the tarot reading, I sat at my desk, and asked myself: what do you feel like working on? The answer that whispered through the cage of my ribs: my graphic novel. The book was about a bipolar bear who falls into the labyrinth of health insurance claims. I’d always put it low on my priority list, because drawing bears seemed indulgent and un-literary. 

So what? I thought. I got out my colored pencils. 

Fast forward five years, and my graphic novel, Bipolar Bear & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance: a Fable for Grown-Ups is being published by Graphic Mundi Press in November. The book took a while to finish, because I took breaks to write a young adult novel and a children’s book and a short story and a slew of essays. But I followed the inner lightning bug that flickers when I’m on the right path. I had to. When depression came and went, that free-spirited creative space sustained me. Writing, after all, is the sole space where I let down my iron will and seek reckless pleasure. 

If writing is a duty, it’s not a joy. And if it’s not a joy—what’s the point? 

is the author of Bipolar Bear & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Health Insurance: a Fable for Grownups. She is also the author of the award-winning novel-in-stories, When Mystical Creatures Attack! Her writing has been published in The Sun, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Salon, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the New Yorker online, among other publications. She is also the creator of the website www.depressionwhackamole.com.

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