The Thick of It

I’m in the thick of it with The Magician’s Land.

The best description around of what it’s like to write a novel is Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling.” You can find bootleg copies of it on the Web, but if you want to read it you should really buy the book that it’s in.

Here’s a taste, from the section called “Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking”:

By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9am, you blink, the evening news is on and 4,000 words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago.

It’s hard to stop quoting, it’s all so true.

But that’s just one phase of writing a novel. A good phase. There are worse ones.

One of the weird things about novel-writing is how different it is from what you’d think writing a novel is like, based on the experience of reading novels. When I read a novel the overwhelming impression I get is of how easy it must have been. I mean, come on, people: it’s obvious what comes next. It’s obvious what she would say in that situation — what else could she possibly have said? Sheezus. When you’re reading, writing doesn’t feel like writing, it feels more like transcribing.

Whereas: when you’re actually doing it, when you’re writing and you’re in the thick of it, it’s totally different. It’s like taking a drug, a relatively harmless hallucinogen, say, and discovering that you’ve been burned on the deal, and it’s been cut with some violently psychoactive shit. You ricochet from divine arrogance to crippling depression, from inspired certainty to total disintegrated confusion to listless boredom. It’s not obvious what happens next; in fact at every given moment you’re violently confronted by an infinite number of possibilities for what could happen next.

And strangely, despite their being infinite in number, every single one of these possibilities is wrong. The right possibility sits outside that infinite set, glaringly obvious to other people, but somehow unfindable by you, the writer.

Fortunately you won’t remember any of this later. Afterwards, when you’ve got the finished book in your hands, all you’ll be able to think is: “My goodness I’m clever!”

That and, “Let’s do that again!”

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24 Responses to “The Thick of It”

  1. Jaimie says:

    My initial take-away from this post: Maybe “sheezus” is a good way to get me to stop saying “Jesus,” which I probably shouldn’t say, given that I’m a Christian and all. You can rationalize “God” really easy because that’s general, but “Jesus” is pretty specific, and yeah it’s not the end of the world but like… yeah probably not, huh. But then “sheezus” feels like such a compromise. Maybe I’m just back where I started with “good grief.” And why do these words matter at all? I just like the sound of them mostly.

    About the actual content of the post: Writing a novel is the best thing ever, but unfortunately I can’t sustain the craziness for long. I’ve decided even a good book will die if you’re in the middle for too long. Which happened to me a few months ago, and it sucks. The best middles are the ones that lead to an end, that are not ripped away from you prematurely — as much as “boredom” can rip anything away from you, that is. I finished a novel once. Those were better days.

    Very excited to read the book. :)

  2. Caleb says:

    “It’s like taking a drug, a relatively harmless hallucogenic, say, and discovering that you’ve been burned on the deal, and it’s been cut with some violently psychoactive shit.”

    This. Exactly this.

  3. Royce says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am in the midst of the emotional “ricochet” you describe, something I was not prepared for when I decided to start writing the novel I’m working on now. It’s good to know I’m not the only one experiencing this. Also nodding along with “the right possibility lies outside of the infinite set.”

    Looking forward to The Magician’s Land.

  4. Claire says:

    I am pathetically glad to hear it’s like this for others (she says, from the top of a horrifying precipice near the end of her own novel).

  5. Jean Naggar says:

    After 40 odd years of telling other people what is wrong with their novels and falling in love over and over again with other peoples’ work, I am struggling to write my own. Oh woe is me! Zadie SO gets it right. It’s the most glorious infuriating depressing satisfying extraordinary process, and I can only dream thaat maybe one day I will hold that finished book in my hands and feel fulfilled.
    Thank you so much for tweeting this out.

  6. Jeanne says:

    It’s like magic, what you’re doing.

  7. D says:

    I get a charge from writing. My blood thickens and my heart about fails, and I’m so happy I feel that way; I know I’m making progress. Good post Mr. Grossman.

  8. Derek says:

    Can I just chime in to say that this is a lot like what doing scientific research is like? Exactly so, in fact, for some kinds of research at least. I imagine that it’s a little like being bipolar. Seems like it might be par for the course for activities that are primarily solitary, where you spend more time in your own head than outside of it…

  9. M says:

    i have a stomachache either because of my breakfast or because my jeans are too tight. I’m writing a cowboys & vampire & punks in the 21st century kinda thing for fun. It’s going to be The Next Big Thing.
    Bigger than Samsung Note II, because it’ll be bigger than 5.7 inches.

    anyways, i’m really looking forward to the next installment, i hope you’re doing well and that book is coming along nicely.

    things are looking up
    or you’re looking down from the ceiling.

    bye

  10. Rita says:

    I’m taking “sheezus,” too. Not because I feel bad about saying “Jesus,” but because people sometimes do look at me like I just swore when I say it and then I have to look back at them with a “Oh, for Christ’s sake, get over it” look and then there we are, looking at each other all antagonistically. Saying “sheezus” would probably help with that.

    But, Lev. Never in your books have I felt that the next thing someone says or does is obvious. Really, very the opposite. You have tossed some very unexpected shit in your books and it’s brilliant. Keep doing it!

    And, when I first read this post, I thought that it sounded a lot like roller derby, too. I think maybe it applies to things you just give yourself over to entirely for a while–writing a novel, scientific research, roller derby, child birth (and I’m sure there are more), so my take-away from this is that maybe you should find a men’s derby league to join!

    And keep writing. Please.

  11. [...] The Thick of It – Author and reviewer Lev Grossman talks about being in the middle of working on a novel. [...]

  12. Kelsey says:

    Awesome post. I’m in the middle of revising my first novel, and it totally consumes you. I was on my phone last night at 2am, saving photos of women to my phone that I pictured my main character looked like for inspiration. If I had died suddenly thereafter, everyone would be very confused.

  13. K. M. Walton says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. 100% relate-able stuff in this post.

  14. Robert Smith says:

    Love the sentiment and realism of this post. Writing is a HARD gig, no matter what you’re writing. I write tournament coverage for trading card games and it nearly kills me mentally each time, particularly in the middle. Can’t wait to see what comes of Quentin and his quest for happiness, or at least his quest not to suck the marrow out of his life and everyone else around him.

    I do have a couple of questions. What is the picture in the post of and what does it mean in relation to the post?

  15. [...] it on the Web, but if you want to read it you should really buy the book that it’s in…Read More This entry was posted in Uncategorized on March 10, 2013 by [...]

  16. Your 3 books (especially the Magicians and Magician King) help me so much when I am depressed and I wish I could help you out during the lows of writing. But, is it selfish of me to think that if you didn’t have these moments then your books wouldn’t be as powerful?

  17. [...] Lev Grossman is absolutely right about being in the thick of writing a novel. (Via Gwenda [...]

  18. This post, and others like it about the process of writing — with all the commenters saying “yes! yes! that’s just what it’s like” — make me wish I was a writer, so I could share the joy of community here.
    Except then, not, because writing sounds damn HARD.

  19. [...] on: wonder. But I need to shrug off some cynicism first. Thankfully there are blog posts like this one by Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, that remind me of the wonder of writing. (One of my [...]

  20. Interesting read!

    My own personal experience of writing a novel is significant different. Yes, I’ve learned (quite brutally) that the act of *writing* fiction is /far/ different than the act of *reading* fiction. I gained a much greater appreciation for the process of re-writing, refining, and editing your work (and I’ve learned to -seriously- value the Word Processor — to think people used to rewrite entire manuscripts by hand/typewriter!?)

    For me, it wasn’t really about coming up with the novel’s concept, or researching it, or even writing it — it was really about the process of *building up* on the novel with successive rewrites, and the continual destruction and remaking of your work, of finding a new way to elucidate an old thought you’d scribbled down while intoxicated with Poeisis.

    Each read-through of a line, paragraph or chapter, and I change the word-order, punctuation, or even the entire subject, like a painter working up from a sketch into a full painting, until it’s finally been breathed Life into it.

    The process of reifying an idea — manifesting an idea into action, in this case writing in the novel format, as mediated through the computer screen, the word processor, and the keyboard, and run through the strainer of grammar, time sequentiality, and experiencing yourself as writing — this process of idea-reification morphs and changes the idea, really giving it a life of its own. Athena may have sprung from Zeus’s mind, but like /hell/ she’ll conform to what he wanted for her.

    After I finished working on my novel and ran it through for publication, there wasn’t this self-congratulatory excitement, no “wow, I’m so brilliant”, or “How proud I am of myself!”, or even a relieve that it was complete. Instead, I was left with a feeling of emptiness, dread, and loneliness, like I’d parted from a very close friend, a teacher,a son/daughter — a god? — with whom I’d had a momentous, year-long conversation… The kind of conversation I’d be forever cut off from having again. (Sure there’s sequels, but it will only be /the sequel/) And, you’re also left with a certain existential responsibility for the outcome of the novel.

    Author’s separation anxiety? I must have it — and I’m wondering if other authors have felt this too.

  21. Sara Victoria says:

    It must have occurred to you – you must have felt, on some level – that it’s all actually true. That there are, indeed, two uber-cultures: a ‘magical’ world and it’s agonizing opposite. (Not that the ‘magical’ world is not agonizing. Darkness exists everywhere. Quotations around that word because.. it has connotations that limit.)
    At this critical growth spurt, on Earth, where the frequency elevates exponentially day by day, rendering ‘the veil’ thinner and thinner, those gifted to speak to the masses, such as yourself, receive and translate this understanding in ways that nurture and uplift and prepare the ground. Artists are healers and teachers. And you are a particularly delightful one. Blessings to you.

  22. [...] you describe what it’s like to be completely engrossed in your WIP? Lev Grossman quoted an excerpt from Zadie Smith’s great essay (That Crafty Feeling)  and I was like, OMG! [...]

  23. I’m just glad to hear that you were “in the thick” of the next novel as of March! I just finished *The Magician King* and am hungry for more…but maybe I’ll have time to backtrack for *The Magicians* before the next book gets published! BTW, thanks for the wonderful read. :)

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