I’d recommend trying to write a novel at some point in one’s life. “Try”, here, being a word that cannot be emphasized enough. Try to write a novel, even if failure produces a stack of unpublished papers, silently waiting for the recycling bin. When this failed novel finally does land in the recycling bin, understand that it’s okay. The failed novel served its purpose.
The purpose of trying and failing to (although success would be nice as well) write a novel is that doing so affects the way one reads a novel. One realizes the practical difficulties that good writing renders invisible.
I tried to write a novel. I’d say I reached about 150 pages, single-spaced, 11 pt, Times New Roman. I definitely failed. I began writing it around my 22nd year, and had conceived it earlier. At the time, I was most inspired by Chuck Palahniuk and Phillip K. Dick, an unfortunate combination. In rereading this unfinished work, I get to revisit the emotional atmosphere of my early twenties. The atmosphere is best described as acidic, laden with hopeless cynicism and relentless egotism. I don’t claim to be unique in this regard, but I would have then, which is what embarrasses me now.
There’s an interview with David Foster Wallace in which he describes cleverness as the most frustrating thing about teaching writing. He would read story after story in which the unstated yet obvious purpose of the writing was to prove the cleverness of the author.
My book is intentionally clever. It is about a young man whose mind is unconsciously connected to wikipedia. He can instantly and accurately summon information as needed. He uses this power to impress his stoner roommate and coworker (they worked together at Chick-Fil-A) by answering trivia questions while watching Jeopardy. My main character is also in contact with an alien entity with buddha-like qualities named Hal (after the Green Lantern). Through a series of mundane events, the main character ultimately does end up competing on the popular television show, and as a form of social protest, decides to loose by answering every question correctly, but not in the form of a question. The main character has an accidental tattoo of a T-Rex on his penis and Alex Trebek is an android.
Few times do I achieve some sort of breakthrough in my writing, where some important emotional truth is reveal. These moments are buried under pop culture references, whiney internal dialogue, and dirty humor. The true point of the writing, if I’m honest, can be summarized as: I am a clever, self-aware guy in his early twenties who has stared into the abyss and walked away laughing. Absolutely pretentious.
For all I can condemn about the writing, however, I’m pleased with my stack of papers, waiting for the recycling bin. For starters, it’s difficult to truly dedicate oneself to writing a novel. I’m proud to have found in myself the capacity to really, really try. The main reason I’m pleased with this obnoxious bit of fiction is because it instilled in me a new sense of appreciation for reading.
Presenting dialogue in a controlled, well paced rhythm is absolutely difficult. At some point, I realized I had been writing in a first person narrative when my story would flow better in third person. I realized this because I felt my flow improve when I wrote backstories for other characters than the main. However, one does not simply change a few words to convert a novel from first person to third. The novel, basically, had to be rewritten.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to balance characters. My story is structured around one principle character with several periphery characters. It was difficult to give these characters complex and independent lives. Some are less characters, more things that happen to the main character. Events. In principle I know better, but in practice, tropes just flowed out. Ultimately, this (and the overwhelmingly cynical tone) is why I gave up my novel.
I believe tropes appeared in my writing as a consequence of my true intention. I felt I had some important message to deliver as a consequence of some sort of heightened awareness of the truth. The happenings of the main character are part of the process by which this truth is revealed to the reader. I was writing a parable.
I can forgive the self-aggrandizing early-twenties version of myself for producing such transparently self-centered writing because that’s probably the point in life when it makes the most sense to be conceited. Trying to write this novel caused me to realize I do not have a heightened awareness of the truth. The “truth” I thought I was revealing is not really at all concealed from everyone else.
Why read if some sort of truth is not made transparent by the end of the novel?
Considering life not as a parable, but as life, full of things that have no relationship to the main character. The background as full. Things as not symbolic. Things as themselves.
The main character walked down twenty-six marble steps. Why 26? Why marble? When you last walked down twenty-six steps, did the material on which you stepped denote a meaning? Do you remember the last time you walked down twenty-six steps?
Most existence is not significant. The world of things is vast and mundane. No writing can account for the totality of existence. When writing the words “…walked down twenty-six marble steps,” the author creates a feeling specific to the place the character occupies, both physically and mentally. Marble steps imply a feeling different from wooden steps. Twenty-six implies a different duration than four. Still, if we are to imagine the various angles from which this scene could be viewed, the objects in the space that could possibly exist, we realize there is a whole novel about a main character walking down some steps.
“…walked down twenty-six marble steps, under eight fluorescent lights, one of which shone with a greenish hue by contrast with the others. On the second to last step there was a small rock, about 2 millimeters round, that had fallen from the sole of the shoe in which it had been lodged.”
The above example does not convey a specific concept. In it, there a descriptions of various things. The selection of things and the relation in which they are placed does not mean something the way a rose means love. There is no symbolism. What is conveyed to the reader is an atmosphere. A feeling. To convey an idea, one need not have confidence in one’s audience. One simply and clearly declares. Dictators, for example, are masters of talking at people, of dictating information. To effectively communicate on the level of feeling, however, one must have a developed sense of empathy, both with things and people.
As much as creativity, whatever the word means, the writer must possess attentiveness, must be genuinely invested in the feelings s/he experiences when meditating upon material reality. The choices of what to include and what to elaborate on imply a meaning the reader is fully capable of constructing in his or her own mind. To be a great writer, one has to have confidence that one’s novel is being read by readers who match the author in intelligence. One can’t be clever, defensive, or preachy.
Of course this principle need not only apply to the practice of writing. To the visual artist, the musician, the baker, the curator, the person who lives and considers it worthy to express the experience of living, the principle applies.
As an artist, I’ve found it impressive how little confidence people in the arts tend to have of everyone else. There is an impulse to render meaning explicit. Locked. The piece of paper or text printed on the wall is where people look for the meaning of the object, not to the object itself. One would assume this writing would be clear, especially since it often enough indicates that the work of the artist is an effort to amend some error in the existing social structure. More often, the writing seems highly specialized, for other art people, so as to create a clear distinction between those in-the-know and those not. There seems to be a decreasing confidence in the intelligence of the audience, and a decreasing desire to let outsiders in, even while there is an increasing condemnation of those outsiders.
Returning to the present topic, I consider the curator to be an important metaphor for the writer, the visual artist, and such similar practitioners. The curator finds, selects, and puts into purposeful relation. One could enumerate other activities of the contemporary curator, but this is a fair summary. Of course, the technical aspects of each practice are unique and laden with meaning-conveying potential. The practical concerns of the writer differ from the practical concerns of the curator. In writing, this practical concern is, principally, grammar. Any effective writer would agree that grammar is more than just a set of rules to be dealt with, as an obstacle. “Grammar-nazis” exist because grammar is the invisible structure on which content is built.
The curator must consider the practical aspects of forging connections with artists, gallery owners, and other professionals. Must negotiate what objects will be shown by the artist and how to protect these objects. Must put these objects in the space not only conceptually, forging meaningful conceptual relations via spatial proximity and orientation, but physically, making sure to, for example, secure and object to a wall. Must promote the show in some way. I am, of course, overlooking other aspects of what can be called the grammar of curating.
Among the curator’s practices is writing, itself. Curators often produce written material to accompany a show. It is important to here consider the extent to which the writing precedes the show. If the writing does precede, of course the show is dictatorial. The curator, here, assumes a position in some ways similar to artists such as Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons. The curator is positioning him/herself as the author of meaning, employing, in a non-commercial way, artists from a vast field of practitioners. They do not tell the artist what to make, perhaps, but they can rely on the fact that there are enough artist producing work that it is possible to find and showcase artists who make the work the curator would. Artists are used to contextualize, illustrate, the writing, which is primary to the work on display.
What I am describing is not necessarily inherent to the practice of curating, just one possible mode of curating. Another mode would entail finding, not in the sense of the word that means “the consequence of searching.” More like “being attracted by a specific thing in a landscape after staring at it with unfocused eyes.” Enough of us are well enough educated that we can make a good case for any argument. If one’s motivation is, at heart, “I am clever. I see things other people don’t see. I have a heightened awareness of truth,” the product, written, curated, or synthesized, is dictatorial. Dictatorial in the proper sense of the word, not in the sense evoked by memory of the specific uses of dictatorial communication (the content). In dictatorial communication, there is no confidence in, nor love for, the audience. (It’s interesting to consider, Hitler was an artist.) If motivation proceeds from wonder and empathy, however…
Anyways, writing a novel is a very difficult thing to do.