¶ Why would a novel be, in Chabon’s parlance, “wrecked”? Authors, always sensitive creatures, might abandon a book in a fit of despair, as Stephenie Meyer initially did in 2008 with her “Twilight” spinoff “Midnight Sun,” which she declared herself “too sad” to finish after 12 chapters leaked to the Internet. More dramatically, in 1925 Evelyn Waugh burned his unpublished first novel, “The Temple at Thatch,” and attempted to drown himself in the sea after a friend gave it a bad review. (Stung by jellyfish, Waugh soon returned to shore.) More dramatically still, Nikolai Gogol died a mere 10 days after burning the manuscript of “Dead Souls II,” for the second time.
¶ Sometimes success intrudes on a writer’s plans, transforming what once came easily into an impossible slog — as happened to two old friends, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Lee had written more than 100 pages of her second novel, “The Long Goodbye,” before “To Kill a Mockingbird” was even published in 1960. But the attention accompanying the wild success of “Mockingbird” slowed her output to a trickle. After years of fitful work, she seems to have given up, telling her cousin, “When you’re at the top there’s only one way to go.”
¶ Capote, meanwhile, published chapters from his long-gestating “Answered Prayers” in Esquire, and the resulting fallout — longtime friends, recognizing themselves in the barely veiled portraits of desperation and decadence, cut Capote off — infuriated and hurt him. “What did they expect?” he asked his editor. “I’m a writer, I use everything.” Some think that Capote wrote more, but that the chapters were destroyed or lost; many, including his longtime partner, Jack Dunphy, believe he never wrote another word.
Works are often abandoned because the writer doesn’t know how to fix them. Or perhaps the fix is too disheartening to contemplate. I’ve been there.
Oh, my goodness, the question, “Why do writers abandon novels?” could only be asked by someone who has never written one. A better question would be, “Why do writers ever finish novels?” Writing a novel requires that writers live intensely inside an unreal world, populated by unreal people, and stay there for months or even years. If that world isn’t giving much of anything positive back, why should writers stay there? Or, to approach the question from another angle, I sometimes ask my students, “Doesn’t it strike you as odd for adults to spent all of their working hours making up fantasies and then trying to find ways of narrating those fantasies entertaining enough so that other people will pay to read them?”
“Poetry,” Eliot said famously, “is a mug’s game.” So’s fiction. Ask any reasonably successful novelist if he or she has ever abandoned anything, and if the answer you get is, “Oh, no, never,” then what you’re hearing is a lie. We’ve all got chunks of writing that was burned, trashed, or filed forever in the Deep Closet, and if we didn’t, we would never have learned enough to have written the stuff that someone took away from us and published.
When you’re writing, it’s often difficult to tell what’s good and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s even difficult to tell what “good” means. Hey, folks, if you can do anything else other than write novels, that’s probably what you should be doing.
Keith, Your first sentence provoked a gust of laughter. 🙂
We all know the feeling, that odd sense chagrin mixed with relief, walking away from a year, 2 years, 3 years of work.
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Except for the part about doing something else other than writing novels. I’m afraid I’m stuck. Though I do on occasion contemplate becoming a barista.
Yeah, Robin, that applies to me too. I’m stuck and always have been. Insert wry smiley face here.
Why do I feel an odd sense of relief, a word I used in my previous comment? Maybe it’s just refreshing to speak and even smile wryly about the terror in our hearts, by which I mean the terrible fear that the thing you’re working on just won’t EVER come together.
That is a normal writing day for me. Isn’t it for everyone?
Makes sense to me. Love the follow-up commentary, such a fresh way to look at the issue of abandoning or struggling with a creative project of any type (novels or other large creative works). Why instead of why not?
I wonder why anybody ever begins one.