Or, How I Fell Off My Literary Horse and Got Right Back On
Almost two weeks ago – yesterday, as I’m writing this – was June 16. That date is known as Bloomsday to celebrate the day in which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. This year was a special Bloomsday, marking the 100th anniversary of the novel’s first publication.
I do not know why I’ve never read this book. It seems right up my alley. Long, lyrical passages meandering through the story, different styles of writing, Dublin, and adverbs – so many adverbs that it makes you wonder if Hemingway’s aversion to them stems directly from his reading of Joyce’s novel.
But it ticks all my boxes. Not to mention that it was first published by Sylvia Beach, original owner of one of my most favourite bookstores in the world, Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Joyce couldn’t find a publisher, so Beach stepped up and published it herself. It’s a testament to the romantic notion that all it takes is one person to believe in your book. Or, more accurately, one other person. After you.
In any case, for whatever reason, I never picked the book up.
That night two weeks ago, I didn’t even remember it was Bloomsday until the very last hours. It was quite a timely realization, given the creative struggles I was going through myself that day. I’ll get to that in a moment. Perhaps it was the long day or the late night, but I saw the dark side of that epic tome as well as the inspiration. Here’s the Twitter post I sent out:
I know, right? Kind of flies in the face of all I’ve been saying all these months about not worrying what other people wrote and doing your own thing and so on. But the book in this picture looks daunting enough to read, never mind pondering writing something worthy of the same bookshelf!
The reason finding out it was #Bloomsday and #Ulysses100 was timely was this: I had just decided to quit my current novel (heretofore referred to as “one of my old novels”). I sprung the decision via text with some writing friends of mine, Jodene Wylie and Samantha Plavins. I didn’t really intend to announce it to them. In fact, at that point it wasn’t even a conscious thought. It was an idea simply rolling around in the very backs of my mind. You know, the places where the book was supposed to be simmering away. Instead, the kitchen staff were yelling up the hallway that there was a fire or the recipe was wrong or something at least was off. And for the longest time, I didn’t hear them – or chose not to hear them – over the clamour of the life going on in the front dining room of my mind.
I spit out the news to them in the middle of a totally different text conversation, and felt relief and horror and embarrassment and failure the moment I hit send. That led us to the typical discussions: Why? Why now? What now? How do you feel about abandoning another novel, aside from the obvious crushing failure of closing yet another bottom desk drawer forever – but with the possible excitement of a new project? I felt like I was breaking up with the novel – “It’s not you; it’s me!” I would have insisted. And it would have been true.
As to the why and the what and the what now, I didn’t have any answers at that point really. All I knew – all I realized in that split second, when I finally listened to the shouts from the backs of my mind – was that the novel just wasn’t working. Eventually I realized eventually that it came down to this: I was writing the right book, but for the wrong reasons.
Why I’m Telling You All This…
I’m at risk in this post of coming off as self-indulgent. I’ve consciously tried to separate my own writing life from these pages. Not out of privacy, but because I really don’t want to make it about me. But bear with me. I have a point here that I think will help everyone.
I’m also aware that this post is a departure from my usual length and structure. Can we let that one slide this one time too? We’ll call it a tribute to Ulysses...
Here it goes.
The Tale of the Tale
In my now-abandoned latest novel, I was trying that straightforward style of writing a “mainstream” novel generally needs because I wanted to give it the best chance of success as possible. But my heart isn’t in it. I literally feel my hands shackled as I type – I’ll fly off on some whimsy, and the keyboard will yank my wrists, “No! Das ist Verboten!” And I’ll go back and replace my nice, lyrical words with some noir-ish, hard-boiled subject-predicate sentences that are serviceable enough but squash my soul just a little bit so more and more of that rich creative juice is pressed away down the drain.
To be clear, I have nothing against mainstream writing. It’s an art in itself. There are tons of writers who do that kind of writing very well and are rightfully rewarded. Which is part of the reason why I wanted to try it. But I’ve found that it’s just not for me. If my heart isn’t into writing it, that’s going to come through in the reading, I think. Your readers will always tell when the recipe is wrong.
So don’t do it, right? Here’s the other problem though. I’ve come to realize that the style of fiction I do like to read and write doesn’t appeal to all readers. Like Joyce with Ulysses, I love playing with words and mucking about with language. Then the question during the text conversation became, Can I be successful with the type of writing I want to write? Could I find a home for whatever story it is I want to tell, the way I want to tell it?
(I wonder if Ulysses would even be published, if Joyce started shopping it around today. I wonder how many classics would be? Let’s consider the fact for a second that your favourite book may not even be publishable today, no matter how good it is!)
The ability to find a home for whatever book I write is an important question for me for several reasons. Publishing a book is one of my Life Goals, but I see Life’s hard deadline coming up. Not to be morbid or anything. But with time ticking and me not able to commit a whole lot of time to personal projects, I feel more pressure to find the right project in which to invest my time. I know the odds are stacked against me right from the start, so I want to give it my best shot. The problem is, I have no idea what that best shot may be.
The result is this: my doubts and indecision are freezing me up creatively.
I hear you pointing out to me that, well, why not take a spoonful of my own advice and just get on with it then? Spolier alert: I get there eventually.
But it is a process. And I am not perfect by any means. Mentally and emotionally, I still fall into the same pitfalls as other writers. I have doubts. I have fears. I look at a masterpiece like Ulysses and, as I stated in my tweet, I become demoralized, even as those feeling fly in the face of absolutely everything I said about Hunter S. Thompson and The Fear – and how the Fear of Not Being Good Enough underpins them all.
But that’s the thing about fear: it’s irrational. And sometimes, it makes you act irrationally. Until you catch yourself and, like Thompson did repeatedly, face that fear like something that needs to be killed.
So let me tell you how I killed fear on this particular occasion.
Killing the Fear
First, here are some retorts on an intellectual level. (I’m one of those guys who likes to logic his way out of most things...):
Once someone reads Ulysses, they’re going to want something else to read. Why not my book?
For most people in the world, James Joyce is not their favourite writer. Neither is F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood (all due respect, if you’re reading this), or even Shakespeare for that matter. Why can’t I be the favourite writer for some people in the world?
Today’s average reader will look at Ulysses and say, Pfft. Too many pages. I’m gonna go watch Netflix instead. Why can’t I be the writer who gives them something shorter that they will want to read?
If you’re not sure anyone will want to read what you write, well, welcome to the club. No writer is 100% sure that they’re next book will be a hit. For many writers like Fitzgerald, King, Faulkner, some books weren’t a hit at all (including The Great Gatsby when it was first published). So why can’t I just write the book that I want to read and worry about finding an audience later?
Sidebar on Writing for Readers
To clarify that bit about writing the book that I want to read, I strongly believe that if you are trying to get published, you should always write with the reader in mind. But envision your typical reader, not what you imagine to be the reader of the latest bestseller (unless, of course, they are the readers you’re writing for…!). Maybe even envision yourself reading it. What phrasing would make you laugh? What way of unfolding the story would leave you in suspense and force you to turn the page? What deep-felt emotion do you want to convey, and how can you do that best – for your reader?
So yes, keep the reader in mind. Just make sure it’s the right reader. Not the reader you think you should be reaching.
I Need Your Help with a Thought Experiment!
It’s a climb from the port and I take the steps of Donkey Shit Lane at a steady pace, a heart-shaped stone in my pocket. I walk alone and, though there’s no one to witness, I resist the urge to stop and rest at the standing posts after the steepest part. I watch my step, a stumble can so easily become a fall, a thought that disgusts the gazelle still living within my stiffening body. The marble slabs shine from centuries of use; the light is pure. Even on a morning gloomy as this, with the sky low enough to blot out the mainland and clouds crowding in on the harbour, these whitewashed streets dazzle. Two young lads skip, arm in arm, down the steps towards me. I’m as anonymous as a shepherd or a muleteer in Dinos’s ancient tweed jacket, my hands bulging its pockets, my boots comfortably laced. The lines on my face have been deepened by these years in the sun and my hair hasn’t seen dye, or even the hairdresser’s scissors, for who-knows-how-long, but so what? It’s off my face, in a loose tail, the way I’ve always done it. I’m still here, a little bruised, a little dented, but remarkably the girl who first set foot on this island almost sixty years ago remains. I suspect only those who knew me then can see through the thickening patina and it breaks my heart how rapidly the crowd of seers is diminishing.
What do you think of this passage? Be honest here. Do you love it? Is it pretentious? Did you have to go back and re-read it to understand what the hell she was even trying to say – and did doing that annoy you? Or did you feel yourself being swept away by the words? There are no wrong answers. But please lock your impressions firmly in your mind before continuing on in this post.
For me, the writing soars. I believe I called it “gorgeous”. It’s writing that really speaks to me.
But I’ve heard different reactions to this passage. Which surprises me. It made concrete the idea (which I knew, but didn’t fully feel) that no matter how “well” I (or any of us) write something, it won’t resonate with everyone. That leads me to the scary thought about whether or not it will resonate with enough people. As in, enough to get it published? And is getting a publishing deal the only measure of success? Do I have to perhaps adjust my idea of success? Especially now that I’ve stopped chasing what I think might be “publishable”?
In any case, please either let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your impressions of this passage and help me understand better just how many people like it. A simple “yes I like it” or “no, not for me” will suffice – though please do feel free to expand if you like.
I think I can pull off this type of writing. At the very least, I want to try and I am up for the challenge. Most importantly, my wrists won’t be shackled anymore and writing will be more fun for me. I’m not sure what my next topic will be yet. I’m not sure of the story, the characters, the... anything. But I do have a direction and a style. I’ll take that as a win!
I’ve also decided to read Ulysses, although I’m going to cheat a bit. In celebration of its 100th book anniversary, Shakespeare and Company released a podcast with “Friends” of the bookshop reading pages from the text. I’ll be listening to that throughout the summer, starting today. (Author’s note: I did indeed start listening to the podcast later that day. You can find it on Spotify here and Apple here. There is information about the podcast on the Shakespeare and Company website here.)
In terms of this post, I think the main takeaway I want everyone to have is this:
There will always be moments of fear and self-doubt. You will always compare yourself to other writers, even when you know it’s irrational to do so. You will always question your motives for writing. You will always wonder who your target readers are, and whether you’re connecting with them. You will always get to a point in your writing when you question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and is it worth it and is there something better I can be doing with my time and what the hell is the point of it all anyway?
I go back to my original, core premise: writing should be fun. If it’s not, quit. But if it is, forget all those other questions and just sit down to write what you want. You can decide what to do with the finished manuscript later. But be the first person to believe in your book – or your poem or your story or whatever it is you’re writing.
Then, go out and find your Sylvia Beach.
Below is a short video of Polly Samson describing the inspiration for A Theatre for Dreamers – a lesser-known writer/artist colony/era on Hydra in Greece in the 1960s featuring none other than Leonard Cohen. Nice little bit of synchronicity there too, given that Joyce was so firmly planted in the most famous one: Paris in the 1920s.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!