"The Rise of the Failure Memoir," my failures, and other ruminations

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A list of the things that I did wrong in writing the first 200 pages of my Florence novel:

* Having the audacity to think that I could fit it in during this season of Extreme Busyness (though I had to fit it in, on behalf of a fellowship project I was teaching).

* Choosing to escape the frightening avalanche of emails by taking the book off the computer altogether and writing it in small spurts on the iPad. Good for scenes. Horrific for continuity.

* Giving myself a tremendously complex set of plot points and intersections to manage with a brain now too crowded to manage anything but the bare rudiments of daily life.

* Pushing ahead through the panic, as opposed to calling the panic off completely, and reconsidering. (But I had to push ahead; I was teaching this novel to a student.)

Finally, a few weeks ago, I did stop. Threw almost all of what I had away and started over. New technology. Simplified plot. More sleep. Less work at midnight hours. Less anxiety about the mountains of books and emails flooding in. Yesterday, Friday, was the first day since I began the book last October that I could work on it for an entire continuity-seeding stretch. Last night was the first night that I slept, unpanicked. There's a ton of work to do. But there's a working foundation.

Since I was giving myself some breathing room I decided to go one step farther down the easing road and read through some of the New Yorkers that have gathered here in this season of Extreme Busyness. First up: Giles Harvey's contemplations, "Cry Me a River: The Rise of the Failure Memoir."(March 25 issue) A look at the crop of memoirs that have emerged from failed novelists. Memoirs about failures—hmmm, I thought, I could have written one of those, if I didn't already understand that we all have our failures, our shames to work through.

Most interesting to me was this paragraph about the failure of the novel in our era—something we've all heard much about. Harvey is reflecting on David Shields (that inveterate provocateur) in this passage.
Shields tells a story about how he reached this conclusion ["that the novel is no longer up to the task of representing contemporary life"]. In the eighties and nineties, he spent "many, many years" trying to write a novel about this country's obsession with celebrity culture through the lens of a married couple's domestic life, a kind of American version of Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being." The project stalled when Shields came to find the conventional novelistic apparatus (plot, dialogue, character) cumbersome and irrelevant to his deepest concerns. He discovered that the essayistic digressions he had written and was planning to insert into his novel were themselves the book he wanted to write.... "Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason—or so I have come to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me."
I'm not going to stand in full Shields agreement here, or in agreement with every one else who says the novel is dead. Because I'm still reading and loving novels, and I'm still learning, from the best of them, what language can do, what stories can be, what humanity is capable of. The novel has not gone dark for me—not as a reader and not, if I can just stay focused, as a writer. Light is hard to come by, true. But I'm obsessed with the light.


Sarah Laurence said...

Good to hear of your productive writing day but even better to hear that you are sleeping. I recall a scientific study that found creative thinking near impossible on less than 6 hours of sleep. So sleeping time is writing time too. And the novel is NOT dead.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I love essays. I love memoirs. I love novels. Each of them does something that the other two don't. None of them replaces the others, in my opinion.

Lilian Nattel said...

People have been talking about the death of the novel almost since the novel began. I wonder if under it all, there is still suspicion of a form that was, at first, considered entertainment for women and was more often than anything else written by women. Even now far more women buy and read novels than men do.

Lilian Nattel said...

Oh, but aside from that mainly what I want to say is hurray that you've got through that difficult patch with your new book!

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