Writing a Novel Is

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Writing a novel is a mess right now. I’m close, but I’m not done yet. I’m not done yet, I’m not done.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say, is the truth of it. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know what my words mean. I haven’t found the meaning yet, though I’m digging in the dirt still and I’ve pulled out some stones and I’ve got a good hole going, I’ve gone deep in places even though so much is still so shallow.

Writing a novel is the most difficult thing and also the easiest thing in the world, because what else can I do? I said it was a gift to be allowed and able to do this, didn’t I? I told myself to not forget that the last I wrote here, didn’t I?

The worst of it is wanting to say something important, something memorable, especially when you’re surrounded by a fog and your mouth is full of jelly and everything itches with possibility but you can’t scratch every spot, you only have two hands.

Writing a novel is a messy pursuit. This close to deadline I’ve taken to wearing the mess on my sleeve—hair a jumble, roots screaming, T-shirt occasionally on inside out and I don’t realize until hours later. Makeup? I laugh. Bumping into signposts on the street? Yes, that was me, I’ll try to pay better attention.

I used to tell myself I could not do something. I would set limits. I would say, “I am a slow writer. A good day is five hundred words.” Then I blast through that number with barely a glance over my shoulder and I realize I can do things I thought I couldn’t. And also, I put myself in a small box. And also, I don’t do well when there are rules. And also, every book is different and if you sit in the audience at an author panel you’ll hear that a thousand times and you’ll be like yeah, yeah, yeah, but in fact it’s true.

Writing a novel is an exercise in hope. You hope you can finish it, first off. If you have an agent or an editor, what you are hoping is that your agent or your editor will see a spark in there somewhere and help you finesse and dig it out. If you don’t have those people yet, you are hoping this novel will be the way to lasso them to you. If you are not yet published, you hope this will be the one. If you have been published before, you hope you won’t get kicked off the boat. You hope to not disappoint anyone. You hope to not disappoint yourself. You hope you will make it to your pub date and an actual book will come out. You hope, too, that you make it through the gauntlet of reviews. That people will read it. Yes, that actual living people will read it. Will anyone? Will anyone? Three years between books—is that too long, is that too late?

These are not things you should think about when you’re writing.

Instead think of how it will feel when it’s all over. Think of how you can print out the novel then, and allow it to take up physical space in the real world. Only the space of it. The weight of it in your hands. The weight of all your work. Lie down on a bed, set it on your stomach, feel it hold you steady. You did this. You wrote a novel.

Yes, that moment will come if you keep working.

You just need to finish it first.

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Look

Look, it has been difficult to write much of anything that feels worthy lately, living in this world. This morning the news is a child suicide bomber who killed 50 people at a wedding. The suicide bomber was no older than 14. There is flooding, and people have lost their homes. There are fires, and people have lost their homes. There are so many people in this city right now who don’t even have a home. I walk through the park early every morning to get to this place where I write, private, paid-for, electric key fob for entry, twenty-four hours a day someone guarding the door downstairs, and all around me in the park I cut through, people on the benches sleeping, huddled, sleeping on the grass, backpack protected in their arms or under their heads, sleeping sometimes with their cardboard signs “please help me get home.” In the winter, in the snow, someone made an igloo behind the benches, a fort really, a white belly in which to sleep, but I wonder if the cardboard on the ground kept out the cold. In the morning, it was empty, but I imagine for some hours of the night it was safe inside. In summer, people sleep out in the open. It’s hot. Two girls on a bench in the middle of the park, one lying down with her head in the other’s lap, the other sitting upright, guarding every door, but her eyes had closed. She’d succumbed to sleep. I wanted to stay and watch their bags for them, so nothing would get stolen, but I kept walking, it’s not for me to look. There used to be a woman who danced around a cardboard box in the mornings, a handwritten sign on it saying she wanted to open a dance school, a frightening frenzy in her eyes that kept me from looking her in the face and I feel guilty for it, but she is gone, I haven’t seen her in a few mornings, more, maybe, I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t count. Sometimes I think about how that tree nearby was where people used to be hung. There was a young man with intricate tattoos who slept on a flattened box under the construction awning right outside the building where I write. He slept on his back. He twitched in his sleep. I wonder what he dreamed. One morning his sign said, “I wish I was dead.” He is gone, too. This morning, two men with loaded carts were there in his place, fighting. I walked the curb like a balance beam to avoid them. Sometimes I get yelled at if I come too close, What are you looking at? But I wasn’t looking. The worst thing is we’ve been taught not to look.

Today, they got my order wrong at the café, but I didn’t say anything, pretended I didn’t mind, though I did. I mind so much. But who am I and does it even matter? Today, I don’t think there’s any air-conditioning on at my writing space. I guess because it’s Sunday. I guess because most people are away on vacation. But I’m here and I have nowhere to go on vacation, and I’m trying to write, and I’m hot. I think about the absurdity of my life all the time now. I was flown to a small city in South Carolina two weeks ago to talk about a book I wrote. I stayed in a nice hotel and whenever I was in my room, I wore the hotel’s robe. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would be flown somewhere and stay in a place that had a special robe. So I wore the robe. I got every last second I could out of that robe. I don’t even know if anyone cared that I was there at the book festival, but I did. Who am I, I thought, and why is this happening to me? I stared in the mirror at myself in the hotel’s white robe, just made myself stand there, just made myself look.

I have two weeks left to finish my novel. The deadline is real. There is so much more I want to say that I haven’t yet gotten down in words, and the jumble of them and the stress and the worry of being good enough and the panic of what might happen if I’m not. And yet, think of it, look: You are writing a book. What kind of life is this? I may have dreamed of it when I was young, but in a hazy way, on a cloud, for lucky people, unreachable for someone like me. I’ve always wanted impossible things, things I should not want, things someone should take away out of my hands. That’s my personality. I had an innocent crush on Axl Rose when I was fourteen years old. I only recently learned that he’s a monster. I had posters on the wall of a monster when I was fourteen. There were things I wished for then, I can vividly see them. I wanted someone to love me. I didn’t know if anyone ever would. I am in my room with the door locked and outside my stepfather is making noise in the kitchen, loud, so I can hear it. Back then, he was the monster I knew. My world was so small then, it was bad and small and I was nobody and I was nothing and no matter how many times I wished for all the things, I never thought I would be sitting here decades later, loved, and with my dream come true. My book is due in two weeks. Someone wants to publish a book of mine, and here I am writing it. I looked across the table at the person I love last night, who loves me back, and he has brown eyes, dark, deep, I could never get tired of staring at them, but when I was fourteen I didn’t know for sure if he would even exist. He looks nothing like Axl Rose.

There is a girl who killed her father with a gun. Was that yesterday’s story in the news? Was that last week’s? She was protecting her family, her mother, her siblings. For years they had been abused by this man, terrorized by him, watched him flaunting that gun, and the police didn’t help and no one helped and so what did the girl do? What did she do for her mother, for her siblings, for herself? She got that gun, and she waited for him to be asleep on the couch, and she shot him in the head.

She turned fourteen in jail. This is true.

Her mother called the girl her hero. Also true.

These are only some of the things happening in the world, and here I am, in my private locked space, writing a story I made up in my head? There are no monsters on my wall anymore. This morning, I tell myself, Just get the words down. The words for this story. That’s all you have right now. Your book is due in two weeks, and it’s not going to be what you want it to be, not yet. The world is going on without you. Let it. There will be another terrible thing tomorrow; you will read about it; you may cry. You will take it in, you will carry it, you will worry, you will think of how small you are, but you are here and so many people in the world have nothing and you should never forget that.

Yes, there are bad things everywhere, all around you, but you have been given this gift and you can’t squander it. Look.