My Fixation on the Novel

It's odd.  If you'd told me 7 years ago that I'd be working on my PhD in English/Creative Writing, I would have laughed at you.  If you'd told me that I'd be working with writers like Percival Everett, Aimee Bender + TC Boyle, I would have said:  Lay off the weed, dude, it's conflating your dimensions.  If you'd told me then that in the next 7 years, I'd publish stories in journals like ZYZZYVA, African American Review, Fiction, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Quarter After Eight, Fiction International, Quarterly West, Stand (UK), Notre Dame Review + the Connecticut Review, with more to come inshallah, I would have said: Stop fucking with me man, it's not gonna be that easy.  And yet, even though all that shit's true, + even though I'm crazy grateful for every one of those things, the truth is, I'm not satisfied with my writing career at all, if in fact I can even call it that.

I want to publish my first novel The Amnesia of Junebugs.  I want to publish my second novel The Ninjas of My Greater Self.  While I think both novels have flaws for sure (which novels don't?), I think they're great for different reasons + deserve to be in your local bookstore as much as any other original work of literary fiction.  I have no doubt about that.  I don't doubt it for an instant.  Sure, I see momentum in my own emerging career.  Yes, I have a much stronger backbone from years of workshop critiques + gratuitous attacks by opinionated haters who don't write half as hard as I do.  Yes, I'm publishing stories in journals that I love + admire, that I grew up reading during my MFA years, journals that agents read.  Yes, I believe in myself 100% + would have killed to have been published in some of the journals my stuff appears in now.  But I'm sick of being in professional limbo where your entire life, your whole artistic career is put on hold while you scramble to get your novels published.  This isn't the goddamn 1920's--you can't live off of short stories anymore, even if you publish them in the glossies with your agent's help.

What I want is the novel.  I want my novels in bookshelves.  I want to be able to delete from my inbox a bunch of snarly, hitman-type book reviews by half-actualized, curmudgeon literary fiction writers who write these self-indulgent, in-your-face masturbatory sentences written out of envy for my own ascension.  I want to stop being a default critic of an industry I feel shut out of + start feeling like a player inside my own vocation. 

Seven years ago, I would have been happy with this progress, but not now.  Now I want more.  I want bigger dreams, I want insanity, I want my writing to receive scrutiny, adulation, innuendo, indignation, joy + Eros, I want my books to be dog-eared + heavily creased at the public library, smelling of black tea + engine grease, I want to turn on complete strangers with my sex scenes + move a reader to tears with my characters, I want cum stains, lipstick marks + tear drops on the pages of my novels. I want my unique literary voice to be part of this world, not an aspiration of grandeur.  I want to give public readings, do an interview while drunk + chat with people in bookstores about characters as if they were real.  I want my words to have resonance beyond the voice inside my own head.  I want cultural and artistic accountability, I want the consequences of affecting people, I want to share my creativity to the world, I want the unique privilege of participating, critiquing, embracing + affecting culture.  In other words, in my own selfish, arrogant, egomaniacal, grandiloquent way, I want to be an artist.  I want that.  I want all of that shit.

The way I see it:  My only hope is to either win a book contest, snag an agent or publish my novels in one of the indie presses.  That's when my career will really take off, when I become competitive for creative writing jobs at universities, when I stop questioning my literariness, when I start connecting with readers, when I start standing tall + being what I can only aspire to right now, which is myself.

The Best Time to Write is Right Now

Because he's my thesis adviser, I had to stop by TC Boyle's office yesterday to get his signature for my fall class schedule, which is always the perfect excuse to kick it for 30 minutes + catch up on things. Among some of the highlights of our conversation:

1. Tom confessed that the only thing he felt really needed from his teachers at Iowa (+ in general) was a little encouragement now + then, and maybe a couple edit suggestions every so often.
--That's exactly what I need, I said.

2. After I asked him when his favorite time to write was, he said: I like writing from 10:00am to 2:00pm. I get a lot of writing that way.

3. When I asked him where he liked to write, he said he liked writing in the mountains. I confessed that I was surprised because his writing has such energy + his language is so creative + intense, all adjectives I associate with the city. He admitted he likes the country + the city for different reasons. I think he may be right though. I'm considering applying for a Yaddo residence fellowship next year for that reason. . .

4. I told him I was thinking of going on a mediafast soon (because I waste too much time on crappy reality television, reading the same news stories + facebook).
--What's that? He asked.
--Oh, no cell phone, no internet, no tv, no movie, just writing.
--Well, you'll probably need that for your novel, to really get into it. But short stories work great with all of that noise in the background.

5. When we talked about the LA Times Festival of Books, he told me: they put me at the end of the reading list to stop people from leaving early, but really, I think they're just taking me for granted because I do it every year.

6. I lamented that it was sad that if I'm lucky, I'll be just another author that "makes it" in America, which means going on a 10-city bookstore and reading excerpts of his/her book to three people in the audience (if it's not just canceled out right) + often, they're not even there for you, they're the leftovers from the author before you whose fifth book on the secrets of wealth just became a NYT Bestseller. Either that, or the bookstore's deli was giving away free brownie bites with purchase.

Tom looked at me, raised his eyebrow + said: --I don't see another way. I mean, you have to build your fan base, and in the beginning, you don't have that many readers.

7. I told him that I thought the publishing industry has changed a lot. Now, it seems like a lot more is asked of the author in terms of self-promotion. Writers have to be willing to market their own shit, find their own audience, maintain their own website, befriend their own fans on FB + MySpace, send out their own submissions. He said I might be right, but he wouldn't know because he's been doing the same thing since he left Iowa City.

8. I described the writing relay using literary blogs I'm doing with some other fiction writers like Andrew Whitacre, Christina Zilka + Alexander Chee, to name a few.
--It's sort of like an exquisite corpse, I explained, but with writing blogs instead of pictures.
He paused, then said: --Alexander Chee, why do I know that name?
--He wrote Edinburgh.
--Don't know that. He looked around his crowded office overflowing with manuscripts + magazine covers, then he pushed a book towards me on the desk. I zoomed in. The book was called, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. And sure enough, there was one of Chee's (many beautifully written) essays on Annie Dillard.

9. As our conversation came to a close, I realized--as I do so often in this industry--how far I have to go before I'll be able to say I've really made it. The distance is always greater than the longest distance I imagined it being, which is odd because I have an insane imagination, so I already imagined it being really really long. And that's the scary thing, it's even longer than that. When I got my first print publication, I thought I was on my way, slowly but surely. Before that, I remember sitting down in my boxer shorts one afternoon in Astoria, with the summer light filtering in through the windows, thinking, wow, I just got my first good online publication. In neither instance was I anywhere close to making it. The only thing I can say is that I got a few hints that my writing was really good. A few hints + nothing else.

I didn't know in either instance--and thank god I didn't because maybe I would have folded--that that it takes forever just creating momentum for yourself as a young writer + only after things start moving do you begin to realize that they move a 100 times slower than you can possibly imagine (or endure). But because writing is who you are, you persevere. You can't turn around now. You wouldn't even know where to go. I didn't know then + I try not to think about it now that failure is the rule + that publication is the exception in this industry. But even slowness is momentum + momentum is the only change you're got as an author to reach other people, so of course you take it.

10. As we said goodbye, Tom turned to me + said: --Jackson, Congratulations on everything you've done this year + everything you're going to do.

I laughed + told him I'd see him in the fall. But of course, I meant, I'll see you at the Festival of Books where I look forward to taking you for granted like everyone else.