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Falling in love with the job
Last week I wrote about Ann Patchett's latest collection of essays (read it here in case you missed it) and the response was a little muted—was it too much of a bummer? I’m sorry! I'm turning to the more practical lessons side of the book this week in the hopes that has more appeal.
I talked last week about how Patchett says that Snoopy from the Peanuts comics taught her how to be a writer, but it's more accurate to say that Snoopy taught her how to endure the writing life. He taught her about failure and picking oneself up and trying again, even if you know you might not succeed this time.
"Snoopy taught me that I would be hurt and I would get over it. He walked me through the publishing process: being thrilled by acceptance, ignoring reviews, and then having the dream of bestseller doom dashed: "It's from your publisher," Charlie Brown tells Snoopy. 'They've printed one copy of your novel. It says they haven't been able to sell it. They say they're sorry. Your book is now out of print.'"
I've been thinking a lot about this essay this week as I’ve spent hours banging my head repeatedly against the outline of my second romance novel. I had picked out a love interest that I thought was cool only to get bored with him about fifteen thousand words in-- turns out I had replicated the hero of the first book in the series, so the dynamic between the two lovebirds in the second book was feeling too similar. I got very down thinking that I would have to throw away fifteen thousand words worth of work and start anew.
That's the job, though—picking yourself up and starting again after a failed attempt. "There was more work to do, other books to write. What mattered was that you knew how to love the job."
I think I know how to love the job, but as I inch closer to publishing this first romance novel and figure out what the heck I'm doing with the fantasy I think I need to learn to love all the parts of the job. Not just the screaming joy of careening downhill in a thirty minute sprint that produces two thousand pretty usable words, not just the elation of seeing the word count tick up or the pride when I get texts from friends saying they enjoyed the book. I need to learn to love—or at least work through—the uncertainty that comes from knowing you have to start over, that something you've done isn't quite good enough.
After all, there are lessons to be learned from bad writing. I sometimes joke that my ten years in the slush pile have taught me how not to start a book, how not to finish one. It turns out that Ann Patchett had a similar experience. Her first stepfather was a man of tremendous energy and activity, juggling work, six children, countless hobbies, and numerous affairs. What he wanted more than anything else, though, was to be a writer. In the way that her father was skeptical and concerned about her career choices, her first stepfather was the absolute opposite, convinced that she would succeed and determined to support her at all costs.
But since he also wanted to be a writer, he also sent her his drafts—upwards of forty of them over the years, starting with his short stories when she was in high school. They were terrible. At one point she says to her husband that reading these endless drafts of terrible books could be considered child abuse—except she’s fifty-two. Nevertheless, she read most of them and tried through various avenues to encourage him to change his writing style, to make it less clunky or less concerned with breasts and mayhem. This experience turned out to have been instructive in ways she didn't expect:
"Eudora Welty can show us what perfection looks like, but twenty thousand pages of bad fiction read over the course of a life can teach you what not to do. Dialogue, character development, pacing, setting, plot--I had seen every element of the novel run through a meat grinder. By burying me in piles of manuscripts throughout my life, Mike made me careful. What a time saver that turned out to be!"
(Lest this sound mean, the essay as a whole is extremely kind, even towards the terrible drafts.) “The novel run through a meat grinder” is a fairly accurate description of the slush pile, actually. And every time I sit down to write (or, worse, reread what I’ve already written) I worry that my work falls in this category. Or worse: the almost-good enough. But like Snoopy versus the Red Baron, I just have to keep going. There’s more work to do.
WHAT I’M READING
I’m still working through a Gideon the Ninth reread, which continues to be fun, but I recently picked up an interesting nonfiction book called The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman. It’s about two families— the Kadoories and the Sassoons— who were Baghdadi Jewish and built huge fortunes in India and China in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Yes, it’s those Sassoons—Siegfried was a scion of the family, though not Vidal.) At first I thought the author was glossing over the real harm involved in the creation of these fortunes—the Sassoons in particular were instrumental in the forced sale of opium in China and prolonged its sale long after its sale had been internationally banned— but the book has ended up engaging with that aspect with sensitivity and clarity. The two families are placed into context in colonial British society, and for every section detailing the immense wealth and influence the leading colonial families wielded, Kaufman tells about the destructive effects these had on the people of the countries they ruled but barely interacted with. It’s a very compelling read that also serves as a useful primer to the political upheavals in China in the first half of the twentieth century. Next up from the library I have Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz which should be fun.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Hockeys continue to disappoint me— first James Reimer refuses to wear the LA Kings’ Pride night warmup jersey, then both Staal brothers refuse to wear the Panthers’ pride jersey. So the most mediocre goalie in the land and two brothers I genuinely forgot were still playing refused to perform the token allyship move of wearing a jersey with a spot of rainbow on it for warmups? Cool, cool, cool. Love that. These beautiful Capitals jerseys aren’t for pride but I want one— anyone got like $300?
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.