My apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert for being cheeky with her book. It’s just that it was sitting there on the chaise longue begging for a little fun. (from a b&b outside of Ithaca, NY, September 2013)
Alright, no more excuses. I made my apologies for being a lame-o blogger back in September and then fell through yet again, mostly due to demands at school taking up the majority of my time. What can I say? I’m a teacher, it’s my job.
It is a bit of a let-down to myself, however — I mean, it’s not like it’s anyone else’s responsibility to follow through on my dreams besides me. So let’s just get back in the saddle, shall we?
Since this summer I’ve been working on a project that is centered around characters in the historical reenactment community, specifically the world of Napoleon. It started as a screenplay, but my characters had a bit of a coup, sat me down and told me that they really felt that they always saw themselves in a novel. They asked if I wouldn’t mind reformatting their existence, but I said no; I’d already invested too much time and money in the adventure. But do you know what they did? They staged a walk out! I was informed by two different Napoleon impersonators (in my head) that they would no longer show up to work if I put them into a movie, at least not before their book was written first and film rights to it were legitimately established.
Lesson: Be careful if your characters are crappy actors who earn their living pretending to be megalomaniac conquerors of all the known world. They’re bossy.
But — dammit! — they’re right. I’ve been a reader of novels since I was four years old when, self-proclaimed genius that I was, I believed myself vastly superior to my peers for being able to read books with no pictures in them. Time has humbled me (believe me!), but the fact remains that I’ve been a novel reader for 32 of my 36 years, and if there is a format that I understand more or less intuitively, that’s it. I love watching movies too, but I’d never written one prior to this. In fact, I’d never even dreamed of attempting it.
The reason I did attempt it was due mostly to fear: I have feared writing a novel. No, that’s not accurate, because it’s not the writing of it that’s scared me. It’s the sharing of it; the fear of putting it out there to be rejected, of criticism, of not being good enough. And I don’t mean ‘good enough’ in terms of commercial success; I mean that I won’t be as good as Toni Morrison, or Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner. That I won’t plumb the depths of profundity or create a new aesthetic. (Having a Masters degree in literature has been a bigger stumbling block to becoming a writer than just about anything.)
So my novel’s characters have challenged me to exorcize that demon. I have spent way too many years reading works that were written before 1945 by writers who aren’t just part of the canon, but part of the pantheon of The Artists of The Ages. I need to stop aiming for that level, and I need to embrace the fact that achieving less than canonical status is not failure, because if I don’t accept that, then I won’t produce anything. At least not anything other than my boxes of journals.
Here’s the plan. I’m going to spend a lot of time this year reading new(er) fiction authors. I restructured the syllabus of my spring semester class to focus only on writers from the last 40 years. They’re still mostly pretty canonical (Morrison, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie), but my students deserve some tough writers to wrestle with. In any case, their voices are more contemporary and will give me as much to consider as my students.
Furthermore, I’ve joined a book club in my neighborhood — The Hoboken Readers’ Circle — that is centered around a mix of eras and authors. We’ll be discussing Matthew Quick‘s Silver Linings Playbook next week, and Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men next month. I’ve happily not seen the film version of either book, so they’re completely new to me. Looking forward to the new neighborhood acquaintances and friends to be made through this group as well.
I’ve also signed up for The Wall Street Journal‘s new book club. Each month a different author will choose another author’s work that has been an influence or inspiration to him or her. In February, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) will lead a discussion of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Not only had I already had this book recommended to me, but Gilbert writes that Mantel’s historical novel helped her to craft the narrative of her own latest work of historical fiction. Given that my own novel focuses around present-day people obsessed with the past, her praise of Mantel spoke to me. The book club discussions will take place online and via Twitter. I’m sure I have no idea how that works — I have a Twitter account but haven’t yet figured out what makes it so popular — but I’ll bone up on it before the end of February when the discussions begin. Oh, and I haven’t actually read Gilbert’s writing either, but I don’t feel right engaging with her about Mantel’s work if I haven’t read her own — so I just downloaded Eat, Pray, Love to my kindle and will start reading it tonight before bed.
The ambitious menu of readings that I’ve established for the next few months, although edifying and surely entertaining, won’t help me to craft my own characters if I don’t continue to write. So I’m going to. I’ll post my thoughts about and reflections on the books I’m reading here on this blog, giving particular attention to the writerly lessons I take away from each. I’m going to attend the Jersey City Writer‘s meetings with more regularity and keep sharing my work since that’s the thing that scares me most.
Napoleon wannabes (in my head), I hope you’re happy. You’ve demanded, I’ve responded…now help me see this thing through until you exist on a printed page.
For those of you reading this who exist in the real world and not in my head: stick with me. And please feel free to encourage me to stick with myself.