On Sharing the Draft of a Novel with Friends

[originally published here in January of 2011] Before Christmas Break, I asked four of my colleagues from the English department at the high school where I work to read the first draft of my recently completed manuscript. That was foolish, because I then spent my whole break feeling a consistent, low-grade anxiety about their possible reactions. I recently asked my wife to read it, and she promised to start today. Now I’m a nervous wreck.

One of the things all these people have in common, besides being people I respect and care about (my wife most of all) is that none of them ripped the book out of my hands, squealed with pleasure, and ran off to tear through it in a single sitting. In fact, when I returned from my anxious break and found that most of my colleagues hadn’t read it, I was greatly relieved. As much as I would be horrified to hear that they hated the book, I think I would be even less capable of responding appropriately if they loved it. At least, when they apologized for not getting around to it, I knew what to say. “That’s okay. You’re busy. It’s no big deal,” I lied.

Don’t these people understand a writer’s relationship with his or her novel?

Of course they don’t. That’s a stupid question. To paraphrase my African-American friends, “It’s a writer thing; you wouldn’t understand.” More specifically, it’s a novelist thing. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t written at least one novel can really understand the relationship.

I’ve been thinking about that relationship (as I’ve stewed and fretted about my coworkers avoiding me because they hated my book), and I remember hearing more than one writer describing his or her novel as a child to whom they’ve given birth. I categorically reject this metaphor. It’s wrong in too many ways. In fact, any writer who utters this kind of drivel should not only avoid using metaphors in his or her own work, but should probably also not be allowed to have children.

A novel is only like a child in the most superficial ways. It’s fun to start. It takes a while. It hurts to finish. And then it’s ready to be presented.

But even these similarities don’t stand up to close inspection. When you begin a novel, as you fall into the joy of the story and pass that point where you know it can’t all fit in a short story, you inevitably begin to dream about the rest of the book, its reception, the fame and wealth it will bring when throngs of adoring fans beg for a sequel. Not so, for children. If, in the act of making babies, you start to think about your future child, even if you limit yourself to only the most positive parts of child-rearing, the way your father will shake your hand outside the delivery room, your mother’s happiness when she picks up the baby for the first time, the look on your son’s face some Christmas morning, the pride your daughter will take in some spelling test or piano recital, the funny stories you’ll tell to his prom date to embarrass him before he heads out the door, the moment you walk her down the aisle… Any one of these moments would sufficiently ruin the mood enough that no one would ever make babies.

And yes, writing a novel is a significant investment of time, but unlike a pregnancy, there’s no natural mechanism which assures that it won’t take a year, or five years. And if you don’t finish your novel that might be a bit disappointing, but let’s not fool ourselves about the false equivalence to the heartbreak of losing a pregnancy.

I’ve heard that labor hurts. A lot. In the process of crafting your novel, you may run into barriers that might make you cry out in exasperation, but that’s not quite the same thing. Also, those frustrations, while far less pronounced than the pain of childbirth, don’t come exclusively at the end of the process. Writer’s block is the unpredictable false contraction that pops up during the first trimester, or the second, but doesn’t mean you’re anywhere close to finishing the book. Oh, and if that false contraction is bad enough, you can walk away from the novel for a year or two. I’m pretty sure you can’t take a hiatus in the middle of your pregnancy. But again, I’m not speaking from experience.

And then, when your baby is born, it’s really born. It’s out in the world, fully formed and ready to go. Your job instantly changes. And people can immediately see your baby, and coo over it, and no one I’ve ever met says, “I don’t really have time to look at your baby right now,” or “I’ve examined your baby and he just doesn’t do it for me,” or “Your baby is pretty enough, but I’m just not sure what she’s trying to say to us.” The baby is there and perfectly wonderful. The novel is a rough manuscript and you have to schlep around, begging for some agent to pimp it to publishing companies. If you treat your baby this way, immediately looking for someone to pimp him on the streets for cash, you should be locked up.

So what is a writer's relationship to his novel like? What metaphor might explain this better to that first group of prospective readers who just don’t understand how important this is to you?

I think writing a novel is more like trying to build a boat in your backyard. At first, you’re excited about the drafting of the plans. Everything is possible. Will it have a motor? Will it have a sail? Why stop at one? Maybe a crow’s nest, and replica cannons, and a satellite navigation system! Throw them all in there! Why the hell not? And if your spouse is noticing that slightly mad gleam in your eye, you don’t have to show her the plans quite yet. They’re just sketches, after all. Who cares, right?

And then you actually go and buy lumber. Very quickly you realize that you aren’t quite up to this task. You know a thing or two about boats, but mostly from pictures and movies, and there’s really not enough room in your backyard to build the Queen Anne 2. But you’ve nailed some boards together, and you’ve made adjustments to your plans, so why not continue, right? Who cares?

Now the hull is starting to take shape. You find yourself telling friends that you’re building as boat. After their reactions, you find yourself keeping it a secret again. Don’t worry. They’ll forget.

You make time in your schedule, but not too much. It would be embarrassing to have to cancel engagements because there’s a half a boat in your back yard. The neighbors complain about the hammering after dark, so you move some things around and try to do most of the work on weekends during daylight (okay, well maybe that’s the exact opposite of the novel, but we’re still closer than a pregnancy), and you just keep adding more lumber. You realize you’ve made a significant investment in this thing, but it’s a sunk cost (you do note the pun), so you can’t stop now.

You find that you’re acquiring all these new tools, too. Back in high school, your shop teacher seemed like a nice enough guy, but you just didn’t understand how he got so excited about this kind of thing. Now you imagine calling him up to show it off, but you reconsider and decide to wait until you know it will actually float.

You start to get really worried that the neighbors will look over the privacy fence and see what you’re doing. You know they’ll call you "Noah" behind your back and make jokes about the coming flood. They would call your sanity into question, and you’re not sure you could blame them. But it’s really coming together.

At the end of the building, there’s a lot of sanding and painting involved. If you hadn’t committed to the thing a long time ago, you’d never go through all this drudgery, but now it seems like an act of love. You wonder how it has come to pass that you actually take pride in your new talent for sanding. It’s not exactly something you could put on a résumé, but you’re pretty sure you’re above average at it.

Now you think it’s finished, but that means you have to decide who will see it first. It’s just too big to put on the trailer all by yourself. Plus, even though you’ve walked around the thing a thousand times, you worry that someone else will immediately see a gaping hole in the hull you managed to miss. And what if your friend takes one look at it and says, “That’s going to sink,” or “That’s the ugliest boat I ever saw,” or “I don’t get it”? Bearing these possibilities in mind, you don’t want to throw a big party, pull a huge sheet off the thing, and yell, “Tada!” So you choose very carefully, make those selective phone calls, and ask for help.

And then they say, “Yeah, I’ll come help, but I’m busy, so it might be a while.” And you want to scream, “I have a yacht in my backyard! I built it with my own two hands! We’re talking His Majesty’s Sailing Ship ‘Novel’ here! I’m not kidding, it’s a giant f---ing boat!”

But you don’t do that. Because you are already the guy crazy enough to build a boat in your backyard, and crazy people can’t afford to shout at their friends.

So that’s where I find myself.

Now, assuming my friends and my wife don’t try to save me from embarrassment by dissuading me from proceeding, I’ll try to get an agent. Basically, I’ll be asking people to climb aboard and find out if she sails or sinks once we’re off shore. I understand why people don’t want to be on that maiden voyage, even the people nearest and dearest to me.

But I wish they could understand why I’m being so weird. I’m telling you, it’s a giant f---ing boat!

Assignment for OWP: Artist's Statement

Today we went to the art museum on the Willamette University campus. Our assignment was to read an "Artist's Statement" on a plaque on the wall, then find a painting and write a fictional variation by a different artist. Here's mine. I should say that I not only made up much of the biographical information about the painter, but also shifted the date of the painting itself from 1949 back to 1944.

Artist’s Statement
Based on “Driftage” by William Givler

Driftage - Share on Ovi

Five years into my position as the dean of the Museum Art School in Portland, I suppose I was getting something of an itch. I’d been teaching there since ’31, so, after 13 years, academia had not only lost some of its luster, but it had begun to rub some of the sheen off of my love for art itself. This bled into my personal life, or perhaps my failing marriage soured my attitude towards work, but by the summer of ’44 I needed a break. Plus, the war was going on. It seemed like the world was going to hell on every level.

A friend let me borrow his beach house that summer, and I set up my easel, prepared my paints, then found myself taking long walks on the beach by day and having one scotch more than I should each evening. I’d listen to swing music and think about how those happy sounds reached the ears of former students of mine stationed in England or Hawaii, or in the bellies of steel leviathans swimming through the Pacific toward Japanese artillery nests. The happier the song, the more bitter the static sounded, like the hissing and popping of great distance, and the whispers of the hollow nature of words about love.

One day I started to paint a pleasant sunset, and I could hear the tinny voices and forced rhymes of love songs in every crashing wave in the painting. Out of frustration, I splattered dark brown-gray paint over the sun, then swirled the thick spots into a giant piece of driftwood on the beach. The soft pink clouds became bloodstained harbingers of a coming storm. I added my wife in the foreground, her back to me, hair whipping in the wind. Exceeding the impressionism of the rest of the painting, her hand looks particularly unfinished. That’s because I stopped there, stepped back, and looked at what I’d done. Not only had I eclipsed the sun, but I’d filled the world with horror. I wanted to reach into the painting, to take my wife’s hand, to finish it with my own.

The painting itself went on to win awards, to find fancy homes for itself, first in galleries, then in private collections, then museums. But it did me a greater service. The painting sent me home from the beach, back to the job I’d forgotten I enjoyed, back to the art I’d committed to, back to the wife I love.

And I left the scotch behind to warm my friend’s cold beach house. I didn’t need it anymore.