January 08, 2024

Is it just me, or has everyone recently finished writing a novel?


A few days before Christmas, my radiator broke in my bedroom. Luckily, I was taking a nap in there at the time, and the hot sound of hissing work me up. To my initial horror, a thick jet of steaming radiator water had taken aim at the journals I keep on the shelves at my desk, level with my right knee. These are the spiral bound notebooks I've been filling since the age of fifteen, when an assignment for a freshman creative writing class became the discovery of an obsession. They catalogue my juvenile obsessions with murder, death, and family life, first inklings of sexual desire (written in French, if I thought mom might be interloping), dreams for myself, escapades in Minneapolis, Montreal, London, and LA. I have twenty of them or so, some spanning a year, some only a few months. And my radiator was pissing on them.

I have to say that my initial horror quickly faded, replaced by a calm acceptance. Dust to dust, and all that. Before I had even had a chance to examine the evidence, I was over it. I laid out the worst ones on other, more stable radiators, quietly pumping away in other rooms. As the pages began to crisp and curl, the destruction became evident--certain character sketches and plot lines: vanished. Most of my trip to Seattle with Brian: erased. The rest of the damaged pages, I'm happy to say, could still be read by any future biographer.

Which raises such silly questions...Am I writing these things for a future biographer? For a boyfriend who will sneak a peek when I'm in the shower or out buying a newspaper? Am I doing this to capture that trip to Seattle, as though it doesn't already exist in much more colorful form in my head, or as an assemblage of digital photos? "Archive fever," someone might say, but I'm not sure what that means yet. But there's something to it. I never refer back to my old journals, I never re-read them to try and recapture some lost personal arcadia of my youth or of my years in London. While they're catch-alls, in a way, for plots and lines of poetry, they serve the purpose of workbooks you trace your cursive letters in and then discard. They're mimeographs or carbon copies. It's the process of writing it down which embosses something of the thought on my mind. What's leftover gets stacked on the shelves. Who are they waiting for?

There they seemed so permanent, and the growing stack was reassuring, I suppose, in the same way that those people you know will be reassured by their stacks of newspaper dating back to 1982. Until you realize how easily some types of ink will run...

Is it just me or has everyone recently finished writing a novel? Jack Kerouac is finishing one, among the pages of his journals which I'm reading, Jack Kerouac: Windblown World, edited by Douglas Brinkley. I should say I'm reading it despite the inane blurb from Johnny Depp. It's 1947, Kerouac is around my age, and he's finishing The Town and the City, counting the words he puts down each day and writing long, rambling essays about Jesus Christ. Although when you apply the theorem I've developed regarding sexually-confused Catholic boys (Religious iconography = latent sexual tension), his mini-essays reveal a rather more interesting subtext. In Minneapolis, Kerouac had "a short talk with a young man in the bus station who had a Fire of Phenomenality in his eyes and ended up giving me religious tracts (one more involved & free-thinking than the other, designed for blokes)"...[religious tracts = latent sexual tension].

The journals are filled with jokes and take on a tone that suggests he was quite aware of how they would play into the hands of future readers. Of course, I've never read a set of journals that didn't come across this way--as just another tentacle of the author, another type of story. In our present age of blogs and Tarnations, perhaps this is the new dominant form?

Joan Didion, in my favorite essay of hers, "On Keeping a Notebook," almost comes to a conclusion about its point:

 It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.

But who am I keeping in touch with? That future biographer? That long-gone boyfriend who snuck a peak and found something he would have been better off not reading? That boy who back in 1994 wrote about another boy he loved, in French? It probably doesn't matter.

If you haven't just finished writing a novel, then your New Year's resolution has been to finish one. Or at least write more. Kate Silver has had some good posts on this topic the past couple days, such as this one. Nothing comforts me more than knowing that someone I consider a friend is writing more (because then I don't have to!). Kate writes,

Kinda-sorta related -- something I read yesterday -- Jeremy has resolved to write more. That's been my resolution as well. Sometimes I only get to write between 6-9 AM. Sometimes I ignore my notebooks altogether, which is a shame. I like to write something every day, even if it's a smattering of ideas, like what's above (for better or for worse). I'm thankful for Brimming, because it means I get down a few concrete thoughts per week.

I think about this all the time, especially in the winter. Unlike Kate, I do my writing at my job, after five pm. Have you noticed, like me, how little energy there is to go around these weeks of January and February? It seems a horrible Sissyphean condemnation to have to spend those hours making money. When five pm rolls around, I barely have the energy to pull out my notebook. Last night I didn't even try. Fell asleep on the bus, walked into my apartment and crashed on my bed, fully clothed. Lest this devolves into a pity-party (more than it already has), I like to tell myself that this is part of it--the feelings that it should be easier. So much of writing is just forcing yourself to sit there and exhaust your hours with the banality of the process. Even Jack Kerouac gets in a funk....
THURSDAY JAN. 22--Tried to write and wrote nothing at all, what I wrote was crossed out. This is one of the worst ones yet, especially after all I've written. FRIDAY JAN. 23--Went out finally last night, but I had already overcome the depression by thinking 'right down' to it--I think. Binge, slight one.

Perhaps as Kate and Cooper suggest, it should not be about quantity, but quality. Perhaps my mantra for the New Year should be Make It Good. Of course, resolutions only you set you up for recrimination. Here's mine: buy a big plastic bin for my journals, and don't worry about the why.

Posted by jason at January 8, 2024 08:08 AM