At the Kenyon College bookstore, the display of alumni authors includes E.L Doctorow, Robert Lowell, William Gass, Peter Taylor, John Green, Caitlin Horrocks, Laura Hillenbrand, and me.
from Lindsay Hill’s beautiful novel, SEA OF HOOKS
Amtrak restroom selfie, late at night
I will be shocked if I read another book this summer that I love as much as I loved this one. So excellent - I don’t want to get into it too much because I’d hate to give anything away and I want everyone to read it.
In the Quiet Car (as usual) on my way to New York to see Karl Ove Knausgaard
SO TRUE, TED. SO TRUE.
Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 3
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Read the archive.
Anonymous asks: When people compliment your work, do you feel awkward? Do you believe them or do you suspect they are only being polite? Have you figured out how to graciously accept such compliments?
So here’s a story. Last week I went to a party. It was a big party, and it was in Brooklyn, and it was full of writers and agents and men with tie bars and a few women with retro-peacockish things clipped in their hair. This was an annual party, and during the two years or so after I’d sold my book and was panicking while I rewrote it from scratch, I had been invited to this party and had politely declined, in part because I just couldn’t face a room of people, so many of whom I admired, asking me when my book was coming out. That had become, I guess, a bit of a trigger for me, and it was easier just to avoid it than it was to try to explain why I hadn’t turned in the edits or really what the hell was going on with me. But this year I went because my book was done and out and had been received (if somewhat quietly) and anyway of course this party wasn’t really about me.
When I arrived they handed me a signature cocktail, a plastic cup that I suspect was mostly full of gin because by the time I had finished it I couldn’t feel my cheeks. This, I gather, was the case for almost everyone else because soon the place was roaring and a band was playing some sort of swing-sounding music and I was gabbing freely with people I’d never met before. In other words I was having a great time—it was a great party—and I was wondering why in the world I had ever avoided it. Earlier that day I had received a rejection for something I had applied for, one that felt rather personal, but the booze and the chatter had all but numbed the sting of it. I was hugging acquaintances and was smiling at strangers like we were old friends and repeating the title of my book to everyone I was introduced to, who leaned in to listen because I guess they had never heard of it and wanted to know; one even guy tapped it into his iPhone, which made me feel nice.
Finally there was a woman next to me, a somewhat familiar woman, though I couldn’t remember from where, who was telling me that she had read my book. “I actually liked it,” she was saying. I had no idea who she was, but I could guess from her enunciation she had been given the same cocktail I had. “Thank you,” I said. “It reminded me of Cheever. But not in a derivative way.” “Thank you,” I said. “I mean I didn’t end up finishing it, but you have to understand how many books I have to read.” “Of course,” I said. She squinted somewhere far off, as if remembering the pages she had actually read, and confirmed her assessment with a nod. “But yeah, I did like it.”
I didn’t last too long at the party after that.
I wish I could explain why it was a compliment—one that, despite her tipsy admission of not finishing the book, I do believe was sincere—that punctured me. Or why it was that as soon as she mentioned my book, trying to be nice no doubt, I could only hear her reservation, could only assume that under the tepid word “like” there was an unspoken iceberg of criticism that was in fact the truth. Or why I seemed to care at all.
There is something I’ve noticed among almost every writer I know, including those who publish big, beloved books right out of the gate, which is that there can be a residual shame that comes from publishing anything—or indeed from showing anybody something you’ve written. This is something that gets addressed in workshop settings and maybe among friends in a writers’ group, where presumably you’re discussing drafts and how to make them better. But I don’t think it gets talked about much (at least not publicly) among writers who finally have a book come out. This, I assume, is because having anything published is an honor, so it’s probably wise not to complain. Your job is to be an ambassador for your book, to stand by it and introduce it to the world—shining its shoes and combing its hair and talking about the little guy’s strengths. But underneath that of course there is something else going on, a feeling of exposure that is at once exhilarating and also can be wholly debilitating.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the fear of criticism or failure. That’s somehow different. And I say that because criticism is a stance, it’s another way of showing your hand. This shame is something that manifests mostly in the compliments, in the half-truths and coded language of chitchat, in the casual emails from a distant relative’s book group. I’ve spoken with one writer, whose book was very well-received, who said that at its worst she had the urge to take all of her books back, just pull them from the whole world, and pretend the whole thing had never happened. As extreme as that sounds, I have totally had that urge. Of course when it comes down to it you don’t really want that, but at its worst this shame can make you want to curl up in a ball and disappear.
Exposure, of course, is one of the things we’re after when we write anything. It’s why we do it—to communicate openly, to express something honest or otherwise unsayable, something that cuts through the social language of platitude and concealment, the empty exclamation points of daily email. You *want* to show your hand, and if you’re not risking that vulnerability on some level, if you’re just performing, or flexing the big muscle of your brain, then chances are it won’t be all that interesting. At least not to me. Writing is a project of revealing—of revelation—and the deeper it cuts generally the more engaging it is.
But as a writer, this can put you in a kind of emotional Chinese finger trap. You intentionally expose and then every polite reaction can feel like a disguised slight. There are television self-helpers and a certain kind of macho author who would say that your self-esteem should have nothing to do with other people’s opinions, and while that’s a nice idea, I say that’s probably crap. A fantasy. Because nothing about writing is one-sided, a person in a vacuum banging out books to an adoring public, a macho guy with a beard and a bolo tie invulnerable to other people. A book is nothing, a pile of paper, until it’s engaged by the mind and imagination of a reader. That’s where it comes alive. That’s where it exists. And chances are you got into this writing racket precisely because you’re sensitive to these things, because, whether you want to or not, you register the subtexts of human behavior, you feel it and want to make sense of that feeling, and ultimately want to figure out a way to connect with others over it. Writing is an act of communion, and to pretend otherwise seems to me an unfortunate kind of self-protection.
So then what to do with it? If I were giving easy advice to whoever asked this, I’d probably say to take the compliment on face value, don’t second-guess it, don’t fall down that rabbit hole. Say thank you. Smile. Appreciate the gesture. But I know my own experience has nothing to do with that. (I recently asked my mother to stop forwarding her friends’ reactions to my book—which were all super nice!—which then made me feel worse about it and has left me feeling like I should apologize to her. So sorry, Mom. That was mean. I know you just want to send the nice ones, to share the good news, so you can keep sending them, I’m weird.) In reality I find that I actually have two competing impulses when I feel exposed: one is to curl into a ball and hope to disappear, and the other is to do the opposite, to reach out and be more social, to court interaction and opinion and compose (ahem) overly personal blog posts, to open up further, and go to other people, to trust. This is the only thing that ever really makes me feel better.
And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust. I can’t help but feel like the more you put out there, the less it feels like you’re walking around midtown Manhattan naked, in winter, during rush hour, but I have a feeling seasoned writers might disagree with that. Maybe you just get used to the air on your junk. If there’s one thing I’ve come to see as inaccurate, though, it’s the easy characterization of writers as a field of wilting lilies, as an enterprise populated by fragile egotists secretly yearning for approval. Because most of exposure, of course, takes courage. Writing through doubt takes a ton of courage. And the best response to your work, perhaps the only thing that, for me, ever really feels good, isn’t a compliment but deep consideration. Evidence of another mind, of another person, with me in the dark.
Have a question for Ted Thompson, Debut Novelist? Drop it in our Ask Box!
Ben Lerner, in a 2012 interview with The New Yorker, on the differences between writing poetry and fiction. (Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is coming out in September and it’s great.)
Books always had this very powerful effect on me because of some communication, somebody seeming even in a very symbolic or displaced way to understand what I was feeling. And I think that is the miracle of literature, is this private communication between one intelligence and another. — Edward St. Aubyn talking with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about the miracle of literature (via nprfreshair)
Karl Ove Knausgaard's MY STRUGGLE -
Count me among the writers obsessed with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s MY STRUGGLE. I devoured Books 1 and 2 last year and I can’t wait to read Book 3 when it’s out next week. Here’s a short piece I wrote about Book 1 for The Millions.
Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 1
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work.
slurpeemoney asks: On a scale of one to ten, how “good” was your submission draft in your own opinion? Did you feel it was exactly the story you were trying to tell, or was it just “good enough” to send out? I feel like I could spend the rest of my life revising my book, and it would never reach an 8. *sigh*
Ah, a question that is near and dear to my heart. Thank you, slurpeemoney, for asking this.
Before I get to me, I think there are a couple of things going on in your question that are helpful to sort out. The first is the question of how “good” my novel was before it went out, on a scale of 1 to 10, which seems to me a different thing from the second part of the question, which was if I felt it was exactly the story I was trying to tell.
For me, I’ve said before that I knew when my novel went out on submission that it wasn’t quite done, but I think that’s maybe a little misleading. In my case it was less an issue of it being good on a scale of 1 to 10 (good to who exactly?) than of feeling as though the book hadn’t yet expressed what deep down, under all of my uncertainties and anxieties and doubts, I knew it could.
The reason for this could probably be traced back to the earliest seeds of the project, way back in 2003, when the country was careening headlong into war, and I was looking for my first job. I spent my days then listening to call-in shows on NPR that affirmed my outrage while idly scrolling through entry-level want ads, feeling as though every fate they presented was a narrowed version of what a life could be. All of the jobs traded in stability (something I’ve since come to appreciate and need but that then seemed to me a product of easy comfort and resignation), promising regular money and health insurance and a retirement plan in exchange for your time. What the companies actually did—and what they asked you to do—was, in so many of these ads, beside the point. And still none of them were calling me back. So I suppose it’s no wonder that I started writing about a character who had lived through all that such a life promised, and who both rejected its ideals and was somewhat of a buffoon while he was doing it. It seemed to me then that this was the deadened path of American adulthood, and what I felt, with great indignation, was expected of me. The project, in a way, was conceived in the midst of this, and I suppose was a way of lashing out at a time when I was feeling powerless.
It took many years for that to grow into a full novel, and I spent much of that time polishing the sentences until they gleamed. I was proud of the writing and, if I’m honest, desperate to prove something about my talent. There is, particularly in graduate writing programs (where I had written much of this draft), a shared assumption that if you focus on the craft the meaning will come. Make good sentences and they will carry the freight of your soul. Or something like that. And while I mostly agree with that approach, this was the first time I really saw its limits. The book went out, and while I had made 250 pages of good sentences, in my gut I felt an ickiness that I couldn’t name. So when I was given the chance to make changes in the editorial process (along with a pointed letter from my editor), I took the manuscript back. And though it took me nearly a year to locate it, the problem I was feeling ultimately stemmed from a lack of generosity, a failure of empathy. It took me a while to realize how much of the underpinnings had come from a place of anger, a stinky and shriveled and adolescent place within me, how much of the writing that I thought was sharp and truthful also bordered on cynicism, which is not intelligence though it can be easy to confuse the two. I ended up throwing away pretty much all of those polished sentences in that revision, and expanding the book from a single character’s point of view into three, all in order to find my way to a novel that was closer to the one I wanted to write.
All of this is to say, slurpeemoney, that underneath it all, I think deep down we know when we’re done. There is something driving your writing, something that you might not understand, that has to be expressed for the project to be realized. If it hasn’t yet been found, or hasn’t yet been made clear, you’ll feel it and you’ll know you’re not there. To me, the question of whether something is “good” should always be secondary to this.
Because it seems to me the question of whether or not it’s good, and rating it on a 1–10 scale, is impossible to parse, and really comes down to a question of confidence, of how you feel about it. I can say that I’ve never felt more alone during the writing of my book than when I threw that draft away. It had been accepted for publication so what was my problem? Was I being a perfectionist? A self-sabotager? Was I just scared? Nobody seemed to understand and I had a hard time explaining it, and soon my confidence evaporated. No matter how many times I reached out, or confided in friends, or threw tantrums that my wife watched with waning patience, nobody was able to re-instill it for me. They would just stare at me blankly, or with pity, or concern. They would suggest meditation or exercise or buy me another round, and it took me a long time to realize they were waiting for me to stand by what I had made.
So, since advice is always largely for the advice-giver, and since you didn’t ask, I hope you’ll forgive me while I say this (mostly to myself): Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story. Listen to the story you are trying to tell, that unconscious combination of imagination and memory and feeling, and trust it. Concentrate on expressing that as clearly as you can, concentrate on finding the language for it, but above all don’t second-guess it. It’s your true north. Because here’s the great thing about novels and writing and creating anything: nobody else can possibly write the book you’re writing. It is yours, singular, and the more clearly it is expressed the more alive its singularity will be. If you want to be ruthless, be ruthless about clarity, be ruthless about trusting yourself, be ruthless about finding generosity for your characters, but most of all be ruthless about ignoring the inner demon that keeps telling you you’ll never be as good as Eudora Welty or Zadie Smith or David Mitchell or James Baldwin or whoever, that your novel will never be better than an 8. That inner demon is full of fear, and fear, if anything, is what reduces a novel and sterilizes its language. Fear, in writing, is a self-fulfilling prophesy. So banish it, banish the whole scale, and trust your own dark bouquet of inspiration. Thank god you’re not those other writers. We already have their books, but we don’t have yours, and I am of the mind that the world is almost always made better by more books.
I promise to follow my own advice if you will.
Have a question for Ted Thompson, Debut Novelist? Drop it in our Ask Box!
Ask me another!
Wise advice from Ted Thompson.