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Trying to finish my novel has brought me a great deal of anguish and uncertainty. I just can’t seem to stay with it long enough to finish. The novel is done but the rewrites seem endless.
I hope this self-reflection will propel me. At least, this is my intention. I have always traveled a rather circuitous route through life. Straight lines bore me. I am attracted to chaos. The chaos of a wild ocean, a rainforest canopy, a cavernous underground mine. I didn’t sail through college. I struggled to stay interested long enough to graduate.
My first marriage ended, not because I didn’t love my wife and my daughters, but rather because I was restless. I stayed in my second marriage because I found ways to occupy my restless mind. But it too ended. Not in any usual way but in tragedy. And I was left to pick up the pieces. I did. I picked up the pieces. A handful of broken pieces.
For a time, I tried to put them together through the stories I wrote. Short stories. In writing terms, they came and went quickly, which suited my urgency to fit the pieces together. And they helped fill the emptiness. Writing the novel did as well. But the rewrites are too straightforward. Too pragmatic. And are meant to satisfy someone else’s needs, not mine. Namely my editors and publisher. They have specific things in mind. I just want to be done.
Everyone hits the wall one time or another in his life. It is painful and scary. Can I get through it? What is on the other side? More of the same? More pain? More sorrow? Why go on at all? It is easy to quit. It is the easiest thing in the world. I have done it enough to know. I don’t want to quit on my novel. It deserves my best effort. I have no way of knowing how good or bad it is. Is it special? Yes, only because it is authentic. Anything authentic is special. But is it really authentic?
This is what has me blocked. I believed it to be authentic when I wrote it, but now because of so many alterations, so many outside influences, so many other opinions, what has it become? I realize that no novel worthy of being published can be said to be finished after the first draft. It just isn’t done. And mine is no different. I’m not suggesting that at all.
What I am wondering is, when do ideas stop being art and become form? Maybe this is why I have always admired architecture. It is art as form. Should all art try to copy architecture? Should artists strive to create form instead of aesthetics? Should a novel be more concerned with the storyline than the notion of beauty and pain and heartache? Broken pieces? What is the duty of a novelist or painter or composer? I contend the artist’s only duty is to be authentic to himself while telling his story.
And so like an athlete who pushes himself to his limits, the artist has to find the edge, has to hit the wall. And find the courage to run through it, even as he is pushed and pulled by outside influences. Believe me, this is no easy task.
Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
This seems like sensible advice for an artist, but it’s easier said than done. Like anything worth doing, art must meet certain standards. First off, it must stand out. In order for it to stand out, it must be different, it must be unique. Is it enough just to finish? I don’t think so. Not if certain standards aren’t met. Artists aren’t sprinters, they are marathon runners. They hit the wall all the time. And they must find the courage and tenacity to run through it.
While it might be true that the artist shouldn’t concern himself with what his critics might say, how can he avoid it? What is said about his art is the standards by which he is judged. The readers and critics build the wall.
In many ways, it is easier to hit the wall while running a marathon than while writing a novel. Physical pain is more endurable than mental pain. But hitting the wall is both, both for the runner and the writer, both of whom must ask themselves if they have anything left? Can they go on? Have they spent everything they have? Is the outcome worth the pain they must endure in order to finish? Is it just damn stubbornness that propels them? Or is there a strong need to see it through?
The hardest thing for a writer when he hits the wall is to discern art from a failed attempt at it. A runner knows he has x number of miles to go to finish the marathon. A writer knows, too, he has x number of pages left. But what about what has already been written? Is it any good? A marathon can be looked at in the same way. Is it enough just to finish? What if the runner has fallen well below his desired finish time? Does it become a matter of the runner’s will over his pain? Or does he have an excuse to quit?
I have finished every marathon I’ve begun. Is this an accomplishment? I don’t know. Should I approach my novel with this same dogged determination? Again, I don’t know. No one much cares that I’ve finished every marathon I’ve begun. Hell, I don’t even care. I can’t tell you how many I’ve begun.
The same holds true of my novel. If I put it away forever, no one will care. If I finish it, the same is pretty much true. No one will care. The people who read it will get something out of it, I’m sure. They might get a little enjoyment from it. Or a moment’s pause to consider something that I wrote. It won’t be anything earth-shattering or revolutionary. I won’t have saved the world from total destruction. I don’t have that kind of power. Nor do my words. I can only offer a little hope in a world of despair. The reader can take my words to heart or leave them behind. The reader, you see, is running his own race and will come up against his own wall. Everyone does. And everyone will run through it in the best way he knows how.
It is what we do. Really, it is the only thing we can do.