I read an interview a little while ago with someone who has a new book—I can’t remember who, honestly, or what MFA program he had gone to, but in the interview he said something about bringing his (also male) professor bits of beginnings of things, and his professor told him over and over again Not that one, that won’t make a novel—until, presumably, he came up with the idea that became his new book.
The interviewer described that process as a gift—how lucky to be told from the outset that what you are doing will never go anywhere, before you’ve put years of your life and sweat and blood and tears into some monster that will never even go loping off on its own across the cold ice of the far north but will just lie inert and gangrenous until finally you give it up of your own volition.
I don’t know how you know whether a bit will make a novel or not. That chunk of interview rankled when I read it and it’s still under my skin weeks later; I can’t help but think of friends, and friends of friends, who’ve been told over and over again by established writers and editors and agents (spoiler alert: my friends weren’t white; the writers/editors/agents nearly always were) that their stories weren’t stories. (“We just don’t see who will read this. We just don’t see the universal appeal. We just don’t think there’s a market. It’s so obvious you care about this story but will it reach a broader audience.”) But even where structural inequality is not a factor (and HMPH where is it NOT, I ask you, thanks a lot capitalism, you asshole) I think “this thing you’ve brought me isn’t a book” is bad advice. Any idea is a novel in the right hands, or a poem, or a play or a story or a nonfiction hybrid or any of a number of things; what matters is what you bring to the work, not what the work brings to you.
I’m reading Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You, right now, imagining pitching it in nascent form to some eagle-eyed member of the literary establishment: Well I don’t know, it’s about queer shame, sort of? And I mean it kind of has a plot but it’s like mostly at first about this professor’s encounters with a charismatic and periodically sinister homeless hustler and it’s set in Bulgaria but also Kentucky and the language is just really, really beautiful? Or Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, which I’m also working through—So it’s like this guy’s dad is dying and he has to go back to Beirut but it’s also all of Lebanese history and like forty different sources from the Old Testament and Homer and the Panchatantra and the Quran and Persephone and this medieval book of gay poetry I didn’t even know existed and it jumps around in time a lot and all the stories are nested inside each other and it uses foreign words sometimes, I mean foreign to people who speak English? Or Mairead’s book See You In The Morning (have you read it???? if not why not????): The narrator is a teenager who has no established gender and is just kind of wandering around being wise and hurting? there's ice cream? Or Alia Mamdouh’s The Loved Ones, which I finally finished: Nothing happens except someone is dying and half the time you can’t even figure out who’s talking except suddenly you’re crying on the subway because it’s so perfect you don’t know what to do with yourself? And I mean I certainly wish people's writing teachers would tell them that "the failure of a white middle-class marriage" is the most boring idea on the planet, second maybe only to "Charles Bukowski," but I'm not in charge of things, which is probably for the best since then nobody would have published Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, which I loved, because while technically it is about the failure of a white middle-class marriage I'm pretty sure it actually is about making fun of Jonathan Franzen.
Probably you see where I am going with this. And I think, too, that sometimes the most useful thing you can do as a writer is fail completely: to throw yourself into an absolute fucking disaster of a book, a hopeless wreck of a book, a terrible premise or a terrible execution or just a straight-up terror, because at some point you will emerge on the other side with a little more understanding of what you can and cannot do, of when an idea is fighting you because you’re lazy and cranky and tired and when it’s fighting you because it’s a terrible fucking idea, and no one can tell you that or teach it to you, no one on this earth can give you the gift of surviving failure; that’s a grimy old treasure you have to dig up all on your own.
Christine talked me into this amazing yoga cult that I’m falling in love with; you’re supposed to go every morning but I am reminding myself that I’m a work in progress and it’s okay if it takes me more than a few weeks to undo a lifetime of certain bad habits, like whiskey and sleeping through my alarm. This weekend I went to see Sleep No More with Nathan and it was great although I’m still not totally sure what it has to do with Macbeth. I just wandered around touching things and getting in trouble with the poor silent masked people whose job it is to prevent you from going places you’re not supposed to, and a pretty lady took me into a corridor and gave me a secret paper and I thought I was special but it turns out she does that at every performance, sometimes more than once (she gave Nathan a locket, hmph), and I fell down a flight of stairs while saluting a portrait of Shakespeare, which I am telling you in case you thought I was a glamorous person leading a glamorous life. Also apparently there’s nude witch orgy finale and I missed it; after falling down the stairs I retreated to the bar area to nurse my dignity and the end of the show passed me by.
What Belongs To You is lovely and The Hakawati is like—I can’t even describe what that book is like, but it’s certainly a humbling experience—and you should read Mairead’s book because it’s fucking brilliant. I read Kristen Stone’s chapbook from Birds of Lace, The Story of Ruth and Eliza, and it’s about queer women in the South and witches and friendship and it was so unbelievably good that I looked up interviews with her and ordered all the books she cited as influences, including Magdalena Zurawski’s The Bruise which is also incredible and an object lesson in writing queer-girl sex if such a thing is of interest to you. I read a bunch of other things that I keep meaning to tell you about. Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night comes out today and by now you probably don’t need me to tell you about it—huzzah, Alex!!!!!!—but in case you have been under a rock for the last six months it’s one of the best books I read last year and it has glamor and sex and opera and tragedy and doomed love and incredible clothes and queens and politics and scheming and sections that are so sad and epic and magnificent that it’s like reading Tolstoy except without any of the slow parts. Oh! and I'm reading Danielle Dutton's new book Margaret the First and it's GORGEOUS and you should get it as soon as it comes out, I'll tell you more about it when I finish it.
I got a car home from Sleep No More and my driver was great, one of those fantastic New York drivers you get every now and then who wants to tell you everything (“I used to drive Bruce Willis, you know he likes a lot of girls in his car”) and it was four in the morning by the time I got home but I couldn’t stop laughing and I remembered, again and again and again like how you do, even in the midst of despair, why it is that I live here, in this huge stupid glorious city of wild humans, in all these streets teeming thick with stories. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that yours can’t be a book.