I woke up the other morning realizing that if I had entered myself in the race to become a great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, I am certainly losing. Next thought (thanks to years of therapy and generic Cymbalta) was that I have never finished reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (except 100 Years of Solitude). I appreciate their brilliance, the way they are stories about an entire culture as much as a single person, but they are always so slow and boggy. That’s not the kind of novel I want to write. I want my novel to move fast on the surface but provide undercurrents that people can ride should they choose to.
Besides, I’m not in the race. I’m just trying to live a full, rich, loving life. I’m a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. The two enhance each other, and I don’t believe that old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Rather, those who can truly teach are a rare breed and do a great service to the world. I aspire to be one of those kinds of teachers.
Writing a novel is hard and requires balance, yet movement. The surfing metaphor comes to mind. You have to overcome ego issues, you have to tune into the rest of the world, but you have to tune into yourself at the same time so that you can become an accurate conduit… and you have to maintain the balance between the abstract and the concrete, between words and sounds, between conscious and unconscious. You have to go into the past, but not get swallowed by it, know when to make things up, know when to borrow from reality. You ride the wave, exerting years of practice to maintain balance, but following where the wave leads.
It’s better than watching TV (I do too much of that, because it’s so much easier). Novel writing is a worthy puzzle to master. It enriches life and strengthens them mind no matter the outcome.
By the way, my essay, “How Not to Become a Writer” was a finalist in the writing advice contest of Talking Writing and will be published in their Spring 2015 issue, and my story “Life in the Margins” is forthcoming in Big Lucks. I had a great time working with their brilliant fiction editor, An Tran. I’ll post the links when they are in.
*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly, you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.
You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.
You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.
If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.
The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.
A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.
This is one of the places magic realism comes from.
*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.