The Mountain Times

°F Mon, April 21, 2014

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Done


Indulge me for a second: I recently finished writing a novel that I had been working on since the summer of 2009. Publishers, please send your offers to brettayates@gmail.com. (This is how publishing works, right?)
For a certain kind of well-established literary novelist, four years is a normal length of time for the completion of a book, but if you've never written one before, then if you tell your friends in 2009 that you're starting one, it's a little embarrassing if you haven't finished it by 2013 - the impression after almost half a decade doubtless is that you're just the sort of person who starts goofy harebrained projects and abandons them.
I myself never doubted that my story would someday reach its conclusion, but now that it has, I have (predictably, I guess) mixed feelings. Since the age of 21, regardless of what I was "actually" doing in my life, I viewed novel-writing as my real job, and I can't honestly say that at any point during the process my brain was fully occupied by anything else - since that fateful summer when I began, I've really only pretended to think about other stuff. This was a weird way to live - existing in a fictional universe that no one but I cared about - and it'll be a challenge now for me to find a new place for my mind to reside.
Even my feelings of pleasure and accomplishment give way to a kind of terror in this weird where-do-I-go-from-here moment of mine. The terror is owed in large part to the unusual reaction I had to the work when, finally, I went through it for the first time from beginning to end, not as a writer but as a reader: it's the first time I've ever written something that I actually like. It's just so much deeper and richer and more fully wrought than anything else I've done ("Not saying much," replies the regular reader of this column, I know). I think, it's also just a lot more entertaining.
For me, it feels safer to hate my own work - it means that, if I'm not talented, then at least I'm not delusional or complacent. I always believe that I could have done better. This time, I put my whole self into my writing - I'm fairly certain that my novel is as good a novel as I'm capable of producing. I "left it all on the field," in the parlance of sports commentators - which is nice to know, but what if it turns out that all I have is not enough? I can't pretend that I did this as a fun "hobby" like so many part-time novelists, and moreover I actually love what I've created enough to want to share it with people - but what if nobody wants it?
Most of my friends and family members are, in a general sense, more successful than I am; we all started out with privilege, and they've made better use of it than I have, partly by becoming interested in things other than art. They all live in a universe where, if you're reasonably smart and put forth some reasonable amount of effort, the world will compensate you in fair proportion.
I'm not sure this is how it works with artistic endeavors: take a look at the New York Times Best Seller List for fiction - are those really the best books out there? I think my biggest fear is not merely failure but becoming the sort of embittered person who believes that the unfairness of the world is responsible for his failure - that he is brilliant and deserving of attention and that fate has mistreated him. It's one of the ugliest perspectives a person can have and, no matter how much truth it contains, never seems fully correct. I want to keep loving my novel regardless of what happens to it, but I don't want to start hating the world if it doesn't feel the same way.
So I'm trying to remember why I wrote the thing in the first place, apart from lack of anything better to do. Mine is a realist coming-of-age novel - which I've always been embarrassed to admit, since it probably suggests that I just couldn't think of an actual idea for a story.
In fact, it started from a frustration I had with contemporary suburban fiction: how neither the acerbic literary evocations of the apocalypse of urban sprawl nor the more classical family sagas of middle-class husbands and wives or fathers and sons seemed to reflect the undramatic nothing of my own growing-up in New Jersey. But what I came to see after about two years of writing was that I wasn't so much frustrated by my misrepresentation in preexisting literature as by my life itself, which had been so boring and stupid, actually, as to preclude the possibility of accurate representation on the page.
Like many people, I hadn't been very happy as an adolescent, and what I really wanted now, in my bildungsroman, was not to "tell the truth" about that which had caused my unhappiness but to go back and correct it. The interesting thing was that, in order to do this, I had to create a fictive counterpart for whom life was not all that much better than it had been for me - if I'd invented a really wonderful and exciting story, it would have carried no useful connection to the dull universe I sought to overturn. I had to be faithful to all the things that had made my teenage years lame and, in doing so, create something that was not - something that was the opposite.
I really believe that, somehow, I managed to do this pretty successfully, insofar as such an endeavor can be successful. And I'm so glad. But what it made me value - all this time I spent writing - was not books. Life, not literature, had been the real aim. That's what I'm going to remember.