Bread & Jam for the Apocalypse

I just took a few minutes to reorganize the pages of this site, to separate out my published works as kids stuff vs. adult stuff, as opposed to plays vs. books, which just seems like a more useful distinction. (Especially since my newest book, Literally Disturbed: Tales to Keep You Up at Night, is poetry.)51Qxcz2+qOL._SY346_

But anyway, sometimes I get uneasy about the fact that my career has progressed along two such different tracks—like, how weird it is that I’ve written (on the one hand) a horror novel about bedbugs, and (on the other hand), a jaunty musical about Paul Revere, including a song about the Boston Tea Party called “Something’s Brewing.” Then I remind myself of the careers of people like Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein, who found success (and did good work) in both milieus.

And most of all, I remember that when I was reading a ton of apocalyptic fiction to prepare for writing The Last9780253212344Policeman, my very favorite was a masterly and disturbing depiction of England, thousands of years after a devastating nuclear war leveled all civilization, a brutal adventure book written entirely in a sort of pidgin English, because the characters had reconstructed the language from the fragments of their ancestors.

It’s called Riddley Walker, and I got to be obsessed with that book—and the fact that the author, Russell Hoban, is (much) better known for writing Bread and Jam For Frances and its sequels.

9780060838003

I learned that fact and said fantastic and tucked it away to hold in my palm like a diamond. It’s like a ticket that says, basically, “oh, just write it.”

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on writing; or, the lively art of self-delusion

I think most often this blog will deal with writing.

So here’s the process I go through, when I think of an idea for a book.

First I get tremendously excited. I feel like I have come up with the best idea of all time. In my mind I skip past all the complicated and difficult work and imagine the finished product. I imagine the astonishment that will greet the book, the critical praise to be heaped upon it. I am certain, in this first flush of possibility, that the book resulting from this new idea will make my name—my career—my fortune.

Then, second—this is usually between half an hour and a couple days later—I chastise myself for such baseless enthusiasm. How stupid, how narcissistic, how frankly ludicrous, to think so highly of oneself, and especially to think so highly of this bare wisp of an idea still requiring hours, weeks, months, years of effort. That is if I don’t discover in the meantime that someone else has already written such a book. And that’s all before this (still purely theoretical) book has to navigate the marketplace, crowded as it is with lots of lots of very very good books that have sprung from ideas much better than mine. Your audacity (I tell myself in this second phase) is obnoxious and counterproductive. Most of your ideas aren’t that clever, and even the clever ones don’t usually make it all the way to being full-fledged finished projects. You vainglorious dipshit. 

But then, in the third and final phase, I chastise myself for having chastised myself so severely in the second phase. Because here’s what I’ve realized over however long I’ve been trying to make art: at a certain level, you have to think it’s amazing. To get started, and then later to keep going, with something as a) difficult and b) uncertain as writing a book-length piece of fiction, your own insane belief in the merit of what you are writing is a necessary component of writing it.

Once we were in rehearsal for a musical for which I had written book & lyrics, and I got annoyed at an actor, because I was trying to give him new lines, and he kept arguing to keep the old ones. My composer and co-lyricist, Stephen Sislen, always wise in such matters, pointed out that that’s the actor’s job when he’s creating a role: to fall in love with the words and commit to them.

So, too, with writing. You’re allowed—encouraged!—to consider your new idea as a  shining pearl that has emerged from the mysterious depths of your self-conscious. Time will tell whether that’s true, but only your love will keep that idea alive long enough to find out. It’s your job. 

P.S. Totally unrelated: I’ve got an AMAZING idea for a new book.

 

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old books never die, but they do get marked down significantly on Amazon.com

Here’s one thing interesting and weird thing about being a writer: when you’re done with a project, it continues to have a life out there in the universe, while you sort of forget all about it.

So, for example, these days all I can think about is The Last Policeman and its sequel, Disasterland, which I just finished the first draft of.
last policeman.

(That’s all I can think about professionally: in my personal life I continue to spend a lot of time trying to master my new electric toothbrush, and wondering how and why a raccoon died on our lawn.) But meanwhile, out there in the big world, a musical I wrote seven years ago was just produced in New Zealand; I was interviewed this evening by a writer doing a nonfiction book about the science and cultural life of bedbugs, because of my horror novel about the little bastards a couple years ago; and I just got a long questionnaire from a doctoral candidate in Finland writing his dissertation on mash-up novels, because of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters from 2009.

sea monsters

And I don’t know if other writers feel this way, but I personally have this strange and almost uncanny emotional distance from all of these old projects. I am aware on an abstract level that the experience of writing them was intense—like the experience of writing anything you care about and want to do properly. But when I think back on them now, I feel only a vague warmth toward them, like they are friends from elementary school who I remember being pretty cool, but that’s about it. Probably to get oneself properly invested in each new project, it is necessary to let go of the fervency with which you were committed to the last ones.

wildcat
My elementary school.

 

Which is why it’s so pleasing to imagine the things still wandering around in the world,  occasionally being encountered, so other people can get excited about them—even if only temporarily, for the two hours it takes to watch or the two weeks it takes to read.

I don’t have to be obsessed with them, once they’re done. I can be obsessed with the next thing, until it’s done.

 

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