My brother-in-law once said he and I are alike—both of us quick to speak, like the tapping hat on the exhaust pipe running alongside a big truck’s cab. As the engine idles, the hat babbles smoke and steam. It doesn’t keep anything in.
I like to think I’m more circumspect—because writing requires circumspection, because nothing comes out whole—but I suppose he’s right. Withholding isn’t in my nature, so it’s been strange these last few weeks to work on the book I hope to produce by summer’s end. I’ve written material I haven’t included here, and it’s burning a hole in my mental pocket.
Recently Chad Harbach, author of the bestseller The Art of Fielding, spoke at an event in Chicago. The interviewer made much of his history as a Harvard student from Wisconsin and as an editor, with some writerly friends, of n+1. The audience seemed most intrigued, however, by the history of this his first novel, and how it took almost twelve years to complete. He wasn’t as monomaniacal as Ahab—he pursued an MFA to hone his craft, worked to fund himself, read other writers’ work as an editor, and studied friends’ experiences as they brought their own writing to the marketplace. But, for all that time, he carried his characters around. His account of those years brought to mind a man with a bag of snakes, thoughts crawling all over each other, knotting and unknotting and never taking a shape allowing him to withdraw them whole.
And the split of his life into “living” and “my novel” may have become an agitating status quo. Perhaps people casually asked him, “How’s the book coming?” but satisfactory answers couldn’t have been so casual. Maybe he just shrugged and said “Oh, good,” as, meanwhile, those snakes writhed.
During the interview, his responses about the long labor of the novel seemed calm to the point of ennui, even when asked about the $650,000 advance when Little Brown purchased the rights. He’d clearly answered these questions many times before, and the triumph of publication and release is now a fact. The stacked tomes in Barnes & Noble replace whatever the book was during its days of becoming.
Outcomes change a process. With art particularly, results often seem destined and make the making more purposeful and deliberate than it was at the time. When the work reaches completion, everything aimed at an appointed end. During composition, any sense of destiny relies on faith.
Bloggers don’t have to trust fate because the gap between conception and publication is easy to leap—I will be finished with this post in another hour or so—and the blog form suits tapping hats like me who want to be heard as much, if not more, than they want to compose a perfect object.
Harbach couldn’t have believed in his book all twelve years, and a brain carrying plots, characters, scenes, images, and accreting fragments of prose likely became onerous at times. So much imagination imprisoned—how did he deal with keeping his written world secret? How do you coexist with an alternate reality that’s yours exclusively? I wanted to ask those questions during the Q&A but hadn’t the courage.
Maybe I feared confessing my own desperation. I’m spoiled. Blogging offers beautiful release. You barely shape the butterfly before opening your palms to the sky. And here I am, not for twelve years or even twelve months, amassing and assembling uncertain pieces for a sketchily conceived whole. It’s strange to feel this giant—right now, just the concept of a giant—growing like an uncertain lump.
You can’t help wondering if birth or something else lies at the end of labor.