I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I write.
For months now, I’ve been wrestling with the demons of Diviners 3 which, yes, still lacks a proper title. It’s a plot-heavy book. There are, after all, eight main characters plus a host of secondary characters whom I do not regard as secondary in the least but as vital components of the whole vast circus. There are several mystery threads which must be teased out in satisfying fashion. There are backstories and flashbacks. And there are many elements yet to be written which I do not fully understand, which I may never understand. More on that in a moment.
It’s a lot of…choreography. It makes my brain hurt. At times, it makes me feel dumb as a bag of socks. But also, it often feels mechanical. Like performing sex via a VCR programming manual: “I am now to say that I love you and find you desirable. Ah, good. Could you stand a little to the left while I do so? Thank you very much.”
When I get fidgety and want to throw my computer in the river is not when I’m having trouble with a plot point. It’s when I no longer feel that I’m reaching into the abyss and pulling up something that feels both utterly unexplainable yet necessary to tell, that lives on the knife’s edge of the deeply personal within and the hopefully universal without. How do we write about alienation, isolation, love, a moment of William Blake-ish ephemeral joy, the unreliability of memory, identity, sexuality, gender, our fear of and attraction to death and destruction, rage, loss, envy, our deep desire for connection, our recognition that we are, each of us, alone? How to create work that courts the transgressive or, at the very least, asks us to risk exposing our own vulnerability? Work that requires that deep, hard look into the well of the soul?
Right now, as I type this, my brain is saying, “You should be working on your book. It’s due. You have eight hours and seven minutes left in your writing day. Stop this nonsense and report, soldier.” My soul? My soul says, “Fuck off. I’m busy here.”
Fuck off, I’m busy here is, I’d argue, a necessary part of the writing process.
There comes a moment in every book, when you can’t see what you’re writing anymore. You are utterly lost inside your mess of a world. None of it makes sense or hangs together. It feels awful then. Like you are dumber than anyone suspects. That you have no right to be doing it at all. You a fraud, an imposter. I like to think that, at those awful times, your book is smarter than you are in your misery, and it leaves you clues that, later, you will see anew and go, Oh, shit. Riiiight. Because the book comes from your unconscious, from your depths. Despite our writerly manipulations, the true story comes out.
Which brings us back to this: Not all of what I write makes sense to me. It never will. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s kind of the point. If I could explain it readily in a Power Point, there’d be no reason to write a story.
It’s hard work, these acts of creation, of willing nothing into being. It takes time—time to think, to reflect, to ask questions. It also takes time to allow for the unexplainable and ambiguous to get past our defenses and happen. Whenever someone asks me to tell them about something I’ve written, I often want to answer, “I can’t. Not really.” The truth is, I don’t always know where it comes from, and if I try to explain it, it falls apart.
The reader is a better judge of the novel because she/he/they are experiencing it, interacting with it. The alchemy takes place in a space of communication that we writers cannot see or describe—it is a moment of theater shared between writer and reader but taking place offstage. It is beyond our control.
We live now in a time of content providers. Of rapid, nearly feral consumption of any medium. This creates a demand for more and faster entertainment. This is not a judgment or condemnation of where things are, simply acknowledgment. Personally, I love both drive-thru burgers and movie explosions on occasion. I just hope that there will continue to be space for work that makes us uncomfortable. That challenges. Demands. Pushes boundaries or defies expectations. Work that mystifies and does not necessarily explain itself but that makes us feel different on the other side of it. Work that, perhaps, leaves us with more questions than answers: A John Coltrane Love Supreme. A Velvet Underground album. A Langston Hughes poem. A Nina Simone song. A Patti Smith spoken-word free association. Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” A George Saunders book. A Nova Ren Suma anything.
I hope that I can get past my own limitations enough to go where they lead. I am not completely divorced from market pressures. I can’t write a book a year. I’m not fast enough. Sometimes, that makes me feel like shit. Other times, I call upon my inner philosopher, who is a Texas-Brooklyn-potty mouth philosopher who squints at me in supreme irritation from the couch and says, “Yeah, fuck that,” before swigging Dr. Pepper and belching. But that girl doesn’t always show up. I ask myself, Is this story still YA? I don’t know. Is it frustrating, weird, non-linear? Maybe, possibly, probably. Is it, in its draft infancy, stilted and not nearly true enough yet? Yes, times one hundred. Will it take me somewhere new? God, I sure hope so.
It’s easy to let my vanity or ego get in the way of the work. Like everyone, I struggle with “writer’s cocaine”—that need for validation. It’s tempting to want to protect myself and go for what could garner likes rather than open everything up for examination. For the blood-letting. Sometimes, when I can’t figure it out, I come here to this blog to wrestle with it all. Often, when I can’t get through the words, I turn to singing. The act of opening my mouth and letting sound and vibration move through my body via a song is a way of connecting not to an idea but to an in-the-moment feeling. That is being both within and without. You cannot ask yourself, mid-song, “Is this going to pay off in Book 4?” You just sing. You are the fucking song.
I want to be the fucking song.
I am in my fifty-second year as a human on this fascinating planet. I have less time to waste. I feel it deeply. I want to do good work. I want to be more honest with myself and with you. To risk messiness and transparency. I don’t have a brand. Unless that brand is Swedish Fish, which I’m a big fan of as far as brands go. Odds are good that I will never have a brand because when I’m not writing or singing, there’s a shit-ton of laundry to do and some goddamned lovely friends to see. Some of them even make music.
I’ll just keep hacking away at the story, trying to find it, or, if I’m lucky, allowing it to come and find me: The alchemical moment; mystery, happening. The shift from doing to being, the two blurred into a single, straight line.
I hope, I hope.