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Writing Thoughts

Straining and puffing

By February 19, 20152 Comments

This is a picture of my big scary novel. It’s sitting behind me, even as I write this now. It’s watching me. Breathing down my neck.

my big scary novelI would rather not talk about how long I’ve been working on this big scary novel. It’s a long time. It might be five years. It might be longer. In the past when I read interviews with writers and they said they’ve been working on their novel for five years…ten years…fifteen years, I thought, what’s wrong with them? But now I know. Now I understand.

Here are some metaphors for what it’s like trying to write a novel, and by “write,” I don’t mean churning out a draft. Churning out a draft of a novel is relatively easy (at least for me). But truly writing a novel is a whole other thing.

– Writing a novel is like swimming the English Channel (from my friend Ellen). Cold and lonely and you think it will probably kill you. The only way to do it is to just keep swimming. One stroke after the other.

– Writing a novel is like an excavation. That’s Stephen King in his book, On Writing. So, it’s dirty. Back-breaking. There’s the chance you won’t find anything and instead will end up burying yourself alive.

– Writing a novel is like juggling a bedsheet. Yeah, you can’t even picture that, can you? Exactly the point. You can’t juggle a bedsheet. It flops down onto your face. You can’t really throw it into the air. It’s all connected and you keep getting tangled up. Trying to find the edge that goes at the top of the bed. Tripping. Falling over. You can barely grasp the concept of the bedsheet, let alone juggle it.

I may not be able to write a novel. Really write a novel. Which is to say, I may not want to put myself through what it takes to write a novel. I may not be up to the task. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to see what the end point is. People have read versions of this novel and they’ve liked it and maybe you just stop there. Done. I have written a novel.


I love my main character. Her name is Margie. She’s not always lovable. Kindness doesn’t come naturally to her, but she tries.

I like stories that take you to a place and you can tell the author loves that place and you can tell the author really wants you to know that place. To understand it.

I think most people don’t really understand small towns. What it’s like to live in them. What it’s like to watch them disappear around you. I think there’s a big trauma that comes from losing your community that no one really talks about anymore, but that doesn’t make it any less traumatic.

I think people in small towns feel like they have to apologize all the time because we’re bland. We’re vanilla. We’re not diverse. But I don’t think that’s always true. I think believing that makes all the ways in which people are different and interesting disappear. I don’t think that should happen.

These are the things that make my novel scary to me. These are the things that give it a gravitational pull. That give my novel a voice with which to go on whispering at me.

A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind of writer who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me.  – John Steinbeck


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