Thursday, October 24, 2013

(Not-so) Novel Concepts

This past Tuesday, Pulitzer-prize-winning author Michael Chabon (author of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and more) was on campus to give a talk. Squeee! Being the total literary celebrity junkie that I am, I was super jazzed to have an author of Chabon’s caliber coming to give a talk in our little town of Nowhere, Tennessee. Not that I had ever read any of Chabon’s books…that’s not the important part! The important part was that I had always wanted to read his books, anyway, so this was really just an extra-good reason to get on that project, and maybe also suck up some of his literary glow just by being in the same room with him.

Chabon is not the first writer I have gone to see live, in person. During my PhD, I had opportunities to hear academic superstars give talks, including Gayatri Spivak and Julia Kristeva. (Though I drew the line at actually taking Kristeva’s class on Proust…all of In Search of Lost Time in one semester??? No thanks!) While I lived in New York City, I got to hear Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood read, and in DC, I went to hear John Irving do a reading. What differentiated Chabon from some of the others (like Irving, notably!) was that, well, he seemed pretty normal. Funny, self-deprecating, approachable, genuinely nice. Which is great, since we all know what a crazy-bonkers person Jonathan Franzen has become…(I like to call him the post-couch Tom Cruise of literature.) Additionally, Chabon did not do a reading of his latest novel (Telegraph Avenue, from last year), like most fiction writers when they give talks. Instead, he gave a talk about…writing.

For the most part, I am not a fan of writing about writing. It seems…fatuous, self-indulgent, redundant, and boring. Kind of like spectating instead of participating. I mean, if I have time to read about writing, why don’t I just sit down at the computer and…write? Similarly, inspirational talks are also nauseating to me, as I can’t ever get over how fake they seem. I mean, aren’t inspirational speakers basically on the same level as, say, tele-evangelists? Chabon’s talk, however, managed to be both inspirational and about writing and about himself and his inspirations without being boring, self-indulgent or self-help-y.

Chabon talked about how being a writer is like being a superhero whose power is, well, writing, of course! Superheroes, according to Chabon, get their powers from inheritance (like Superman), discipline (like Batman), and/or luck (like Spiderman). Writers must draw on all of these elements or “superpowers” for their creativity. Chabon spent the most time discussing his story-teller’s inheritance: his father’s love of word play and his mother’s attention to detail, among others. But he also spoke eloquently about the role of discipline in the writer’s profession.

“You are not born a writer.”

This is completely true. There are no writer-geniuses. While there have been mathematical or musical child-geniuses, the same does not apply with writing. There are no War & Peaces, no Pride and Prejudices, no Romeo and Juliets penned by 4-year-olds. Chabon also underscored that almost anyone can be a writer—it just takes discipline. You must become the Bruce Wayne of writing: apprentice yourself to masters, practice, take a beating, and keep going. Those of us who have finished our PhDs can appreciate this on the non-fiction level. In order to finish a dissertation, you have to put in some serious ass-in-chair time. That is basically the only difference between finishing and not. You sit and write and you get it done. End of story. No excuses.

Unfortunately, the PhD was my excuse for a long time (over six years now!) for not working on with my creative writing. I felt like my creative energy was being sapped by classes, papers, and teaching, and that I had nothing left over for my creative writing. Yet, I managed to write almost a whole novel during one semester of my Master’s degree. Of course, there is no doubt that a PhD is at least 20x harder and more taxing on the brain than an MA, but still. In order to write, all you need is 30 minutes a day. That’s it. As with reading, the more you write, the easier it becomes.

In his talk, Chabon touched on what a lot of writers have said and written about being a writer, things I often reminded myself while finishing the PhD: You must write, even when you don’t feel like it. Put in your 1,000 words a day, or whatever it is, no matter what. Some days are easier than others, but any excuse for not writing is just that, an excuse.

November is National Novel Writing Month, during which people all over the US and the world pledge to write a novel in a month, aka 50,000 words in 30 days, which equals 1,500/day, a little more than what Chabon cites as his usual daily goal of 1,000 words/day. Lastly year I tried—and failed, giving up at just over 16,000 words (a clear lack of ass-in-chair time). This year, I’m gearing up for another attempt with a different project…and I’m determined to put in the ass-in-chair time to make it to 50,000 words. Writing and publishing novels has been a dream of mine since I was a kid—why did I give up? As with having children, there is never a “good time” to write a novel. We will always have other claims on our time. Thus, we must find the time, make the time, and commit to it.

For those more academically-inclined, Academic Writing Month or Academic Book Writing Month has started to catch on as well. The idea is to set oneself a goal that would normally seem absurd for one month’s worth of time, and to, well, do it!

So, although I don’t think Michael Chabon necessarily intended to present a kind of writerly “call to arms,” I certainly left the auditorium feeling jazzed about my novel, getting back to writing, and, in general, becoming the Bruce Wayne of Writing.

For all that, I say: Thanks, Mike!
(Is it ok if I call you that? I’m going to assume, yes.)


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