In trying to get my writing back on track, I’ve been looking over the material I outlined for the rewrite of my novel in order to synthesize some sort of initial direction, at least through the exposition. And the thing that keeps on haunting me is not so much what I’m trying to say, but why I’m trying to say it.
I’ve realized in looking through my process that my desire to write something universal and something weighty is likely dragging down my ability to write anything at all. The novel I wrote was, at its core, about being in a Greek-letter fraternity in college. It’s not necessarily weighty subject matter, and the original manuscript was anything but.
Part of it is expectations, the “your first draft will suck” school of writing advice often ignored. Yes, writing something at all is an important first step to writing something significant. But at the same time, it’s very hard to convince yourself to write anything, let alone something as long as a novel, if you do in fact believe that your efforts are doomed to disappear into the ether.
Part of it is what I’ve been reading. The book I want to write is about its characters, and about their relatively small-scale problems. Meanwhile, I just finished reading the first book in Ramez Naam’s Nexus trilogy. First off, it’s fantastic. Second off, it’s a story about worldwide turmoil set off by new technology. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I want to write sci-fi like this. But the complete writing ideas I have now are smaller, more intimate, and in the self-critical morass that is my psyche, lacking.
This is another scenario where putting all of these thoughts into text is actually incredibly helpful. In my brain, I have a swirling mass of anxiety about not being able to live up to my own standards. On paper, any of my self-criticism about subject matter and style seems to just distract from my own self-doubt and fear of failure. I could go read Nick Hornby or Rex Pickett and come up with a different set of anxieties that would be equally false and yet equally able to keep me from just writing the damn thing.
I know what the reality is. I’ve written little 4-6000 word snippets starting books a dozen times and not finished them. This is a rewrite of something I actually finished. If I drop this one, finishing anything else is going to look impossible. When I start this rewrite, I really need to finish it. And given my track record, that is scary.
It’s not easy to face down the fact that you aren’t sure you believe in yourself. But it’s honest, and it puts the difficulty in what you’re trying to do in a fair perspective. Besides, worrying about subject matter is bullshit if you actually think you can write. David Foster Wallace had many of his works, including one of his greatest, Infinite Jest, arise at least partially from his lifelong obsession with tennis. If he can get Infinite Jest out of tennis, I can get something at least enjoyable out of the Greek system.