There are times an online post, a magazine article, or a book hits really close to home. Those are fortunate moments. Once in a while, you read something and it drives a javelin right through the bull’s-eye of your soul. Those are fortuitous moments.
I just finished reading an excellent, soul-crushing/moving piece by Josh Weil in Literary Hub (@lithub) called “The Ways in Which a Novel Can Fail Like a Marriage.” Not only does Mr. Weil know of what he speaks, but he’s one of those writers who wears his heart on his sleeve, pant leg, shirt collar and other assorted pieces of clothing.
I strongly encourage you to read the article in its entirety when you have a few minutes, but to summarize: Like many of us, Mr. Weil, a professional writer and novelist, has been in some serious relationships over the years (I think he’s around 40, but don’t quote me on that). Over this time, he’s also been married twice, one which led to divorce and one which he is still in. As a novelist, he has seen success as well as failure. More importantly, he has experienced the hallmark of a seasoned artist on numerous occasions: the work you have to shelve after so much blood, sweat and tears, or – in other cases – the work you have to euthanize.
Imagine spending years, literally thousands of hours, writing a 1,300-page novel, only to realize, this ain’t The One. It was good while it lasted, you tell it, and I certainly learned a lot about myself and my craft along the way, but it’s time to cut you free. I’m sorry, my love, you go on, but you will never see the light of publishing day. Thank you for the memories.
Writing a half-decent novel is not very different than being in and making a relationship worth pursuing succeed. You go in an eager beaver. All you think about is getting back to the keyboard/typewriter/notebook/quill & quire throughout the day and night. You lose sleep over it. Yes, you say, this is The One!
Then the seasons change. It gets darker earlier. It gets cold when you least expect it. You switch off the cruise control and go to manual steering. Then you see a series of signs on this highway of passion-turned-hard work. Warning: speed bumps ahead. Warning: falling rocks. Warning: construction for the next 5 km.
Uh oh. Things get a bit dicey there for a while, but you weather the storm and come through the other end a better, more mature writer for the experience. On top of crossing the 100-page threshold along the way, it’s now spring, so life’s awesome once again. (And everybody wants to hump like humpback whales!)
Months soon turn to years, but this is your baby, The One you’ve dreamed about in your freaking dreams! On and on the two of you proceed on this beautiful journey of literary lust and hardship.
Eventually, maybe it’s a couple of years or a decade (or two decades like the case of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), the last word is down on paper/screen and you sit back and think, Okay, what next? Logically speaking, if this were a relationship, you’d buy the rock, propose, plan the big day and then life is Hershey’s Kisses and rainbows for the rest of your life. Obviously – duh! – you bring new life into the world at some point afterwards, and what started out as a “feeling,” the veritable single-celled organism of love, has since grown wings and bloomed into something so much bigger than you ever imagined.
If it’s a novel, you edit, you get feedback, you edit a few more times, then you send your little bundle of joy out into the world. You advertise and publicize and talk about it constantly. You hit the NYT’s best seller list, you earn fame and fortune, and you tell yourself, All that pain and sacrifice was so worth it!
You go through what Mr. Weil went through in real life. (Cue: scratching record, cutting of lights, diminishing of fireworks). You finish the last page of a 1,300-page odyssey and suddenly realize (though really it’s not “suddenly” because for a while now you’ve known, though not accepted/believed, that something doesn’t feel right) – Oh, f***. This isn’t worthy of being published and no amount of editing I do will make this work work.
If you’re a weak person, you fool yourself and go ahead with it anyway. You publish it – against the advice of your friends and family – and watch as it super-implodes out there in the world, where even complete strangers are only too happy to take time out of their busy lives to write online and in print what a Prince of Douchery you are. What the hell were you thinking putting this colossal cesspool of fecal matter out in the public domain?
If you’re a strong person, you do one of two things: you shelve it as “to be returned to if our paths should cross again,” or you put it to sleep forever, essentially pulling the plug and letting the water drain completely from its life source before anymore time is spent on an artistic endeavour whose best-by date has come and gone.
And it hurts. Holy saints and angels does it hurt like a motherf*****. Confidence moving forward? Nil. Self-esteem? What’s that? Desire to throw your hat back in the ring and have another go of it? Thanks, I’ll pass.
You will of course one day do exactly, just not now. You’ll flex those literary muscles and take said lessons from before into account, your eyes a little wider, your heart a little braver, your purpose a little clearer. And maybe that next novel will also crash and burn a Goose-like death. And maybe it won’t. Perhaps, Against All Phil Collins-like Odds it will turn out to The One! Thing is, you will truly never know unless you take those first tentative steps out Into the Wild and figure out if this one’s worth investing your heart and soul into with a little less reckless abandon than before, but just as much joie de vivre as every other attempt at reaching the ultimate plateau.
And through it all, you will remember what the American author Alexander Theroux once said when opining on the subject that exists in a parallel universe alongside your burgeoning novel: “There is no loneliness like that of a failed marriage.”
Next time around, though, you will use this memory of loneliness as currency to fuel you in your never-ending march to find The One. That feeling you still remember and hold close to your organ of fire will have made you a better person, a more compassionate partner, and a gentler soul.
I can only end off a post this heavy by referring to someone much more eloquent than myself. From Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, I leave you with Katharine Clifton’s remarkable observation of the world:
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”