I’m nearly done editing the first draft of a novel, and it’s a very engrossing process. I think I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborg that the most important task of a writer is to work at the level of the sentence. You can worry about plot and character and POV as much as you want but it won’t matter if the sentences aren’t works of art – ideally, every single one of them. I credit poets in particular with an understanding of the import of sentences. They can distill a thought down to a few words, or evoke an entire landscape with a phrase. One of my writing teachers at The Writers Institute, Harper’s editor Chris Cox, quoted someone saying that a short story should read like a poem, and a novel should read like a short story. This may be true and applicable in terms of structure. But in terms of voice, the ways that one can write a novel are infinite. There is no determinate on what makes fiction a work of high art.
Over the course of writing my novel manuscript, I did a warm-up inspired by Joan Didion: before working on my novel, I directly copied a few paragraphs from one of my favorite novels, or something I was currently reading. It was a great way to get my hands moving and my brain working at the sentence level, before diving into this world that I was creating in my own novel. It is so weird to create a world, with the intention of sharing it with other people. Who are these anonymous readers I am writing for? Is it you, whomever you are, reading my blog right now? Is it someone in my neighborhood? Young-ish people in Brooklyn? Middle-class Americans? I don’t know; I think my audience is probably small and specific. I think most major publishers would turn down my novel because it is unlikely to sell many copies. I think it’s worth publishing, or will be once it’s edited, and that many readers will connect with what I’ve written. But I don’t know what any of that means for me as I try to make a life for myself, in tiresome New York City, working and working and working. My novel would be so much better if I just quit everything else I’m doing and only wrote and edited. But maybe it’s my vice as a writer to love distractions, all the drama of daily life in this city. I am also thinking about leaving New York. There is still so much I don’t know about the world and I am inherently bored when I am only speaking English. I have Latin languages so ingrained inside me after all those years speaking Spanish and studying French, and when I don’t use it it’s like I’m restraining part of myself. And it’s a very creative part of myself, this Latin aspect. I wonder what my ancestors in Italy were like. I know nothing about them. How little we Americans know, often, about who we really are.
And now, to conclude this free-thought exercise, I leave you with words from Dave Eggers:
“How lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it’s beautiful. I can’t decide if what I am doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting. I want to be doing something beautiful, but am afraid that this is too small, too small, that this gesture, this end is too small—Is this white trash? That’s what it is! We were always so oddly white-trashy for our town, with our gruesome problems, and our ugly used cars, our Pintos and Malibus and Camaros, and our ‘70s wallpaper and plaid couches and acne and state schools—and now this tossing of cremains from a gold tin box into a lake! Oh this is so plain, disgraceful, pathetic—
Or beautiful and loving and glorious! Yes, beautiful and loving and glorious!”
–A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius