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 aid order Ambien online 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!”
When I started this blog two years ago, I did it to increase mindshare and enhance my brand presence in the cultural marketspace.
Also I had this feeling that nobody knew who the hell I was. And that the people who did know had a somewhat distorted sense of what I was like. Like I was this snobby Harvard/Yale/Time guy who wore an ascot like Fred on Scooby-Doo, or something. Which fair enough, how could you not think that? But as you can see in the picture below, I much prefer a floppy ruff.
So in this obsessive way, that I wasn’t totally in control of, I did a series of posts that amount to a sort of mini-autobiography. It was almost compulsive. It was definitely confessional. Essentially I wrote a lot of posts about awful, embarrassing episodes in my life.
It probably served some therapeutic function that I don’t fully understand. Some of this stuff I had never really talked about with anyone. But I’m actually pretty proud of the writing. It’s bloggy and messy, but I kept it very honest, possibly too honest. In places I think it’s even funny, in a self-immolating kind of way.
So since there’s been an uptick in blog traffic recently, I thought I’d aggregate those early posts for recent arrivals. With appropriate parental warnings. See below.
How Not to Become a Writer, or, Why I Have Not Been to Maine in 20 Years
Parental warnings: depression, extreme boredom, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
How I Got Published; or, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Parental warnings: whining
The Flight of the Halcyon
Parental warnings: cuteness
I’m not so much posting just at present. I’ve gone on leave from Time to finish The Magician King, and it turns out that that has involved really decisively disconnecting https://ampills.com from the Internet and “social” “media” and really reality in general. That combined with the usual seasonal affective disaster has caused me to fall silent.
But fear not. I will rise and blather once again, as the ancient sages foretold.
Or, Lives of the Novelists Part XXIII. Or, a Requiem for Drazen Petrovic.
A while ago I decided to write something explaining why I went to Harvard and then Yale. Because people ask me about that a lot, and the answer is funny, sort of.
I explained about the Harvard part here. Now I’m doing the Yale part.
This involves telling the story of one of the strangest and most miserable years of my life — a whole year of my life that I almost never talk about or think about. And yet it happened, apparently. It’s been on my mind lately because I’m fictionalizing a version of it in The Magician King.
[These images are more comprehensible, slightly, if you mouse over them and read the alt text … ]
The story picks up at the end of yet another autobiographical piece, one that ended with my fleeing the state of Maine with my vestigial tail tucked between my legs. (If only it had been a prehensile tail. Then I would have shown that state what for.)
That was in February of 1992, less than a year after I graduated college. I fled to New York City, where I served a brief and inglorious term as an intern at a non-profit publishing company, which due to its alert staff and intellectually rich back catalog was able to survive my disastrous stint there. Suffice to say that I did not find my calling in book publishing.
Though I will say that I became a top-notch Xeroxer there. No kidding. To this day I make quality copies.
But I was lousy at the rest of it, and plus New York freaked me out. I lived on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a much more extreme location back then. Giuliani time was still a long way off. The neighborhood did have its charms: there was an arcade within walking distance that had Magic Sword, which is my all-time favorite arcade game, and was open 24 hours a day. Such were the joys of the old pre-Disney Times Square. (I don’t think it had a name, but it was the one with the red police-light spinning over the doorway, you too haunted Times Square back in the day.)
But the little kritch-kritch sounds I heard as I walked to work in the morning were the sounds of crack vials popping under my shoes. That felt like bad news. And my room-mate turned out to be a prostitute. I answered his phone a lot. He’s not here? Would you like to get together instead? Your voice sounds nice.
That felt wrong to me too. I’ve heard my voice, and it’s not particularly nice.
I was going to write a completely different post today, but every time I start writing it it starts turning into something else. My brain keeps running on things like this:
Which is of course a parody of this, which I wrote:
Actually parody is kind of a crude word to describe it. I think it’s probably something much more subtle and interesting.
But anyway this post isn’t really about that. It’s about something infinitely more important: a feeling I am having in my insides.
It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been so crap about posting, given this. I’m not happy about it. But I’m not surprised.
And even this will not be a true ‘post,’ in the sense that it adds any content to the ambient contentverse. It’s just a haphazard aggregation of pre-existing content. But right now it’s all I got.
— I spent last weekend in Georgia. I went to DragonCon, the sheer scale of which was stunning — just the raw acreage of exposed cosplayer flesh alone was awe-inspiring — and the Decatur Book Festival, a really lovely event — the people were truly wonderful, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a better-organized books festival. And I addressed an audience from the pulpit of a Baptist church, thereby fulfilling a childhood ambition:
I also smoked a cigarette, thereby ruining an adulthood ambition. At least I didn’t do them at the same time.
Currently I am working full-time, plus writing the sequel to The Magicians, and doing night feedings for a 5-week old baby. So until further notice my status is and will remain: BONED.
(Also I’m writing an introduction to Cat Valente’s upcoming story collection Ventriloquism. When this book arrives it will destroy you. It is going to change things. As its herald I will be spared. But you? There is no safe harbor for you.)
But I do want to keep posting things once in a while. Like this.
Back in the day I did a few commentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered. It was fun but really labor-intensive, and it eventually emerged that I was sort of crap at thinking of ideas for them. So that gig kind of tapered off.
I originally wrote the following story as an All Things Considered piece, which they rejected. After that I submitted it to the New York Times Magazine’s Lives column. Where it was also rejected.
Finally I have found somewhere that would not reject it: this blog.
(This story also appears in The Magicians, as Penny’s unfortunate adventure in Oslo, ME. But it’s all true. Here goes.)
As a young man I was curious about where novels came from, so in the interests of literature I conducted a horrible experiment on myself. I purchased a 1985 Subaru GL, herb green, and set out Westward, with a capital W, from Cambridge, Mass., where I had graduated from college that spring.
It was September, 1991. My plan was to find a small town, some dot on a map in some large, squarish state, and really get to know myself. I would rent a room, get a job jerking soda, date a lonely, lovely librarian, and Write. Also with a capital W.
I should have known things were going wrong when I set out West from Massachusetts and ended up in Maine, but have you ever noticed what a monstrously wide state Pennsylvania is? It’s like climbing an escalator the wrong way, it just keeps on going forever. So like a swimmer trying to escape a rip tide, I turned perpendicular to it and drove north instead.
The town I ended up in was a few miles south of Bangor — it is, almost literally, where Stephen King novels take place. My first few weeks there were spent living not in a rented room, because rented rooms require money, which I didn’t have very much of, but in my car. I shaved in the bathrooms of diners, and I showered — well, I didn’t do a whole lot of showering. Eventually I found a room in a farmhouse owned by a retired schoolteacher.
I went to Comic-Con.
While I was there I had to blog a bunch of times for Techland, to justify their paying for me to go, plus make a couple of appearances for The Magicians.
Then I was also cramming research for a Time story I’m writing now, and trying to write The Magician King. That was enough without blogging here. Though I would have liked to have been blogging here.
If you’re curious what I would have said, you can pretty much read it in the form of these Techland posts:
You might get from the titles of these posts that I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about Comic-Con. That is true.
I recognize this part. This is the hard part. This is the part where we go to the mattresses.
And it’s not just because we hit Bruno Tattaglia at four o’clock this morning.
Sometimes I wonder if my life is incorrectly configured for what I’m trying to do with it. For example: I want to finish The Magician King by the end of September.
But: I have a full-time job and a new baby.
New babies have to be fed, changed, napped, played with, etc. on a three-to-four-hour cycle. (This may be because they’re actually an alien race that evolved on a fast-spinning planetoid, and this is their natural day-night cycle. Tell the President … )
It’s a question I get a lot. Not from people who actually want to know how I got published, but from people who want to know how they can get published.
I get that. It’s pretty understandable. If I were them I’d want to know how I could get published too.
Well do I remember how incomprehensible the whole New York publishing world looked when I was not “inside” it. It is a dark planet, emitting little detectable radiation on any wavelength. There isn’t much reliable information about its diabolical inhabitants. Accounts by travelers to that cursed orb rarely agree.
I can only give you mine. It’s not pretty.
Chapter 1. In which I don’t get published (1989-1993)
I saw short stories as the natural entry point. In college and shortly thereafter I wrote a lot of them. I would ballpark the number of my unpublished short stories at around 150. I stopped when I realized that a) I have no gift or real love for the short story as a form, and b) the market for short stories is a difficult and complicated and relatively conservative one. It helps to know people, and to have an MFA-type writing style. I didn’t.
Chapter 2. In which I write a novel (1993-1996)
It’s unlikely that, as a first-time novelist, you’ll be able to sell a project based on a partial manuscript. You will need a total manuscript. I wrote a novel in the early 1990’s, in the years right after I graduated college. I did this without an agent or connections or any particular encouragement. I was rejected from all the MFA programs, grant programs and writer’s colonies I applied to. But it’s the first thing I did right.