Monday, November 28, 2011

"I knew I wanted to be a novelist"

Got a rejection from The Sun over the weekend. Not terribly surprising; it's a very difficult market. I really believed in this essay, but hey, I'll just try again somewhere else. Que sera, sera.

I'm hard at work on the first edit of my book, and it's slow going. Every word is accompanied by uncertainty. And often there are cascading changes that have to happen - if I change one thing, fourteen other things have to change on down the line. But I have a vision of everything hanging together, of it all making sense, and oh, it's beautiful.

In my day-to-day life, it's rough. I still haven't started paid work for the company that hired me nearly four weeks ago, and if things don't change in the next 48 hours I'm going to have to give up the dream and do something else. Having been at home for a month, I am so loath to go back to the outside world - it's so nice in here, with all my stuff, all the safety and happiness of home and sweatpants. But I am feeling 200 pounds of guilt on my shoulders, moving around with it every moment, that I'm not contributing my part of the income to make our household run. We can't live without me making an income, and I can't live with the guilt of that for longer than a few days more, even if circumstances keep appearing that they're going to change any day now.

I admit to being sort of captivated by the vision of this, writing, being my job. Plenty will scoff and say that what I've been up to isn't hard work, and I'll grant you that I haven't had my nose to a grindstone, exactly (or I would have opened up my working draft and gotten to it by now this morning) but what I figured out here still holds, that when I do put in a workday on the fiction, it's hard. Not to be sniffed at.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, whose epic book Middlesex I was alone in not enjoying, but whose earlier book The Virgin Suicides I liked a great deal. The interviewer asked him if he had a lack of direction during the years after college, and he said he had direction "because I knew I wanted to be a novelist". He went on, but I got stuck on this phrase, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. As if  "novelist" was a professional career you could just decide to do, get enough training and experience and have that be your job. Like being a lawyer, or an electrician.

There seemed to be such naivete wrapped in this phrase of his. Like he wouldn't be hampered by people who didn't like his work enough, or have to pay any bills while he was writing the first novel that sold. Like the capacity to be a novelist doesn't depend on anything except your decision to do it. I see the field of writing fiction as one from which only fools and angels attempt to make a living; if you can't get into the gate, if no publisher likes what you've done, you don't have a living. You have nothing. Nothing but work that's not good enough, a dream that won't come true, and bills.

But the thing is: he became a novelist. He found success. I don't know the story of it; maybe he worked really hard and was good enough, maybe he had a friend who had a friend who had an agent, maybe he made a deal with the devil. The point is, he wasn't naive. He was correct. Novelist is his career.

I've been using the word "writer" when thinking of the career I want to build. I already am a writer; I've had things published in print media and been paid for my work with the written word. It's not what I do on a full-time basis, but I think that calling myself that isn't trespassing. But to me the word "novelist" implies vocation, professionalism. And striving for that, calling my desired career "novelist" - without all the equivocations involved in "writer", since textbook authors and short story authors and people who create content for spam blogs can all fairly be termed "writer" - seems like a firmer choice, one that feels more accurate to what I want to do. I don't think I'm a particularly good writer of short stories, but I think the longer stuff I've written is better, so it's a more comfortable fit anyway.

But I'm not a novelist yet. I may be a writer, by hook or by crook, but novelist isn't something you can be until you've been paid for work that's bound and sold at a store. At least, that's the way I see it. I don't know what Eugenides would say.

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