“I experience shame and self-reproach more or less continually.” Jonathon Franzen quoted in a Salon article titled “Literary Self-Loathing”.
I’m probably too timid a person to loathe anything, even myself. But I recognize what Franzen is talking about. The questions about why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I still can’t explain what I’m doing, why I still have so much to learn about how to do whatever it is I’m doing—they lurk about, waiting their chance to spring upon me (most often at 3 or 4 A.M).
In fact, the only time those questions really leave me be is when I’m working. Even when the work isn’t going well–even when I’ve made a character walk in and out of a room three times because I have no idea what the scene is trying to accomplish, even when a character is jawing on like the world’s most insufferable talking head, even as CLICHÉ ALERT lights up my synapses—I’m absorbed. I’m purposeful. And hopeful. This makes no sense, but it’s true.
Franzen goes on, “The only way to deal with it (the self-loathing) is to keep trying to immerse myself in the fictional dream and hope that good sentences come out of that. Once there are good sentences on the page, I can feel a loyalty to them and start following their logic, and take refuge from myself.”
That’s it. That loyalty to the good sentences is what it’s all about, where the sense of calm and determination and optimism is rooted. Humility helps, too. There comes a point in every book I write where I understand, This isn’t going to be quite what I thought. And I’m not sure what it’s going to be, instead. But I keep going, putting my faith in the characters and setting and situations I’ve developed, trusting them to show me the way. This isn’t the same as saying, My characters just take over. How can they—they’re my characters! But they certainly exist, thanks to me, and because by that point in the book I believe in them fully, I listen carefully. I count on them to uncover the connections I’ve missed, the themes still un-mined. Like God, I’ve got a lot to learn from these creatures I created.
My new middle grade novel has lots of bits about Darwin, and evolution is surely the book’s middle name. It started out as a mystery—what was I thinking? Plot is torture for me. After trying out crimes so obvious a five year old could solve them, and crimes so convoluted even I knew they were preposterous, I moved on. After four (or more) tries, “Moonpenny Island” evolved. A few of the original characters survived—the fittest, I guess—and the setting, a tiny speck of an island in Lake Erie, has never changed. Already, a merciful amnesia is setting in, and I’m so happy with the book, which will publish in 2015, that I’m forgetting much of the agony.
But I do know that I showed up at my desk, every day I could, over the course of way more than a year, to work on it. The doubts and confusion fell away while I sat here, typing, deleting, staring out the window, but sitting sitting sitting, bearing witness, having faith. The way my editor kept pushing me to go deeper and farther has a tremendous amount to do with how the book turned out—but that’s a story for another post. For now, I’ll just give thanks to Flor and Sylvie and Jasper for being my companions all these months. They and their story aren’t who or what I expected, and I’ll never be sure exactly how they came to be. But I’m very grateful.