Last night, working on one of my novels, I typed, "The preposterous was the last refuge of the desperate, a form of magical thinking to confront everyday futility."
I stopped, paused, considered what I wrote. I am not in the habit of crafting artistic statements of intent, but it struck me as the perfect mission statement for most of the characters I write about.
And about myself. Here I am, well past the age when you would expect me to know better, and I'm still trying to craft the one perfect novel that-- gasp!-- might save the world.
Yeah. Preposterous. Preposterous that, in this age of video gaming and declining patience with the written word, reasonable people might still think that it is the novel that can save the world. And preposterous, given the many times I've come up empty on this endeavor, that I still think I might be able to write that novel.
Within the past 48 hours, I've talked with at least two other writers who, in varying stages, are deciding whether, in the face of rejection and debate about the efficacy of writing, they should still press on. One has published a couple of novels. The other, a poet, revealed to me that she just won a fairly major award that she still can't publicly announce. We've all, through our careers, have received just enough encouragement, just enough acceptances and wider acclaim to have reason to believe we're reasonably talented. (I say this knowing that, of the bunch, I'm probably the least decorated of the three). We write because of our own internal rewards we receive when drafting decent sentences, crafting decent images, and (as preposterous as this sounds) constructing meaning within our work.
But it's still preposterous. Years ago, like many others, I believed that if only I could land a story in X Journal, if only editor Y would take notice in me, if only Agent Z would represent my work, somehow the heavens might part and, lo and behold, a wider audience would take notice of me.
It still hasn't happened.
Years ago, while interviewing a former business associate of baseball star Lenny Dykstra (in conjunction with a nonfiction piece I was writing), I came across one of Einstein's lesser-known theories: the theory of insanity. According to Einstein, insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Each time I begin a new project, I think of that. As in, "Hey Dumbass! How many novels have you tried to write? Why do you expect this to be any different?"
Efficacy issues. That's what I sometimes battle against. I suspect many others do, too. As in, if the net result of spending hundrends of hours writing a novel is rejection, wouldn't it be wiser to invest that time in something more sensible? Like looking at silly cat videos on YouTube?
I remember reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in high school. I remember the spirit of suspense as I tore through it, and the idea that I was reading a form of extended wisdom that wasn't exactly available through other mediums. Our teacher told us the novel's history and its supposed impact on race relations and civil rights in this country. It was a novel, we were told, that helped change the preposterous Jim Crow laws, helped bring about greater equality, helped make the world a better place.
I took FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM with me on the one and only time I visited Europe. I knew little about the book so it still surprises me that I took it along with me. Perhaps I thought it was thick enough to fill my two-week vacation. My wife and I were going to Italy, a vacation capped off with a whirlwind 24 hours in Milan. I didn't even know that Milan was the primary locale on Eco's novel. And yet, as we crammed in visits to La Scala, The Duomo, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and the Santa Maria Delle Grazie (the convent where Da Vinci's THE LAST SUPPER still hangs), it was like I was experiencing a sense of deja vu-- I had read about these places and inhabited them so thoroughly through Eco, it was like I was visiting old lost friends for the first time.
These two touchstone literary moments are among the many that have formed me, as a person, and as a writer. I suspect anyone who's ever tried to write a poem, a short story, a novel, an essay has similar moments. I suspect I'm not the only one grieving Lee and Eco's loss today. But I'm also filled with hope-- not that I perhaps might offer through my writing a similar touchstone moment to others, but the hope that the next book I pick up to read will again provide that touchstone moment for me.
ADDENDUM: I should add, I haven't read GO SET A WATCHMAN, Harper Lee's early MOCKINGBIRD draft that was released last year as a sort of sequel to her classic. Rather than being the fair-minded attorney who is bent on seeing that Tom Robinson (an African-American) gets a fair trial before an all-white jury on a trumped-up rape rap, GO SET A WATCHMAN portrays Atticus Finch as a racist who attended Klan meetings.
Most reviewers panned GO SET A WATCHMAN for its politics. However, reviewers also pointed out that, when compared to MOCKINGBIRD's lucid and lyrical prose, GO SET A WATCHMAN just was not very well written. When I read this, it made me love Harper Lee even more. The book that came out as GO SET A WATCHMAN was written before TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. To borrow Anne Lamott's pungent phrase, it was a "shitty first draft." And yet, rather than give into Einstein's insanity theory and abandon the project, Harper Lee must have worked tirelessly at her second draft to make is shine so wonderfully.