See I went into this under false pretenses. Well, partly false pretenses. I had heard the stuff about writing being a calling, and I thought, well that’s not me, it had never called to me, I was never one of those people who as a teen wrote by flashlight under his bed covers in small scrawly pencil in a locked-with-a-key diary, one of those who just had to write; nope, not me.
And neither was I the kid whose imagination was so capacious that he had written seventeen science fiction novels by age fourteen that detailed the lust and ligaments of a planet existing but not existing at exactly the same time as this one, but in a parallel universe at right angles in a direction that we here on Earth could not even begin to fathom.
Nor was my memory so eidetic that I was compelled, as some of my high school contemporaries were, to give a scene by scene description of the latest Italian spaghetti western movie watched, down to the camera pans and the dialogue of the characters played by Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones dying in the desert. That wasn’t me. No, nor did I carry a memo book at all times on my person, the better to record all the wonderful observations to be made every day as I wandered through the vast, immense, carnival and wheel of life, The Great Mandela, making sure I missed nothing, the follies and foibles of my fellow human beings chronicled in the unblotted scribblings of my quill.
No. Not me. I understood that. I was more wary. I entered with fewer stars in my eyes, or so I liked to think.
Writing a novel was, I thought, just a challenge. Not an earth-shaking one, but a mild challenge to myself. Something interesting, something to occupy myself in a somewhat worthwhile way, I thought. I had some time, why not? You understand? That’s all it was. And, um, no, not poetry or short stories, I figured a novel would keep me more engaged for a longer amount of time. I was intrigued by the sheer length of the thing, the need to sustain. Heck, a poem, a short story, anyone could toss that off—right?—that was no challenge. That was like learning to play the tuba or do the shot put. You heaved a bit, put forth some effort, and boom you made your mark on the world. Seemed much too easy.
So the siren call was this: not as a calling or a sacred duty, but as a task. That I could understand. The length was the point of it. I understood it as I could understand the lure of the marathon. A sprint told of your speed, but a marathon spoke to something else. And then, too, I could understand that maybe it’s not the final product, the ten pounds of paper in my hand when I finish the thing that was important, but the journey. All those little steps accumulating into distance covered, pages written, miles tracked, chapters completed. Oh, Kumbaya, Oh, the journey. Who will I meet on the way?— the process, not the product, the opportunities for self-discovery and enlightenment. The promise (by whom?) that by writing I will access sides of myself that I had never looked at before. I would learn discipline as well. Who cares what the final outcome is, I will have traveled the road, pilgrim, I will have Machado-ed a path of my own, and I will be able to look back to see the gentle grasses tamped down by my insistent nudging through the brush. It is good, even of itself.
No, no, no, no, no. it’s a trick, it’s all a trick. I’m putting up the warning sign now. Disregard at your own peril. It’s like those bamboo finger traps, don’t you see? You put your fingers in, and the harder you try to pull them out, the more stuck you get.
After eight drafts of one yet unfinished novel, and 90,000 words of another novel that’s still in first draft, I can see what they’ve done. If you think it’s like running the marathon—here’s what they didn’t tell you: this marathon isn’t twenty-six miles. You get to what you thought was the end, and now you have to turn around and run back for another twenty-six miles. And the worst part is that there’s really no choice—you’ve come this far, and you’re stuck. You’re stuck with these thousands and thousands of words, and dozens of incomplete characters who haven’t a way out, no chance, and if you abandon them, if you dump them in a pile by your side, there’s no one to help them. So, you’ve got to throw them on your back and carry them across your shoulders, without even the benefit of Gatorade, and really at this point you’re the last person in the world who should be doing this, because frankly, you’re exhausted, and sick of the world, and certainly sick of the very ones whom you’ve been carrying. It’s not fair, and you want to drop them off right now, let them roll down onto the ground, but the problem is this: if you do, you will have nightmares every single night and even in the day, but worse than that, without them, there’s no way you can find your way back. Yes, I forgot to mention this: that place you ended up at, when you thought you had reached the finish line, turns out it was the middle of the freakin’ desert, and all memory of how you got there has been erased. It’s as if you were blindfolded, herded onto a bus, and then thrown out the back door without food or water in some insane survivalist experiment. So there are no markers back. The only thing you know is this: if there is to be any chance at all of you getting back alive, it’s only because somehow the movements of the bodies you’re carrying across your back will guide you there.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The only cure for a novel is another one. It doesn’t say anywhere in the myth that Sisyphus was a would-be novelist. But then again, it doesn’t say anywhere that he wasn’t. You’ve been warned.