Friday, August 28, 2009

You suck, and you shall suck forever more

I had a minor epiphany this evening while talking to a graduate student at a party. This has been a rather mournful week for me--I finished a draft of a novel last Friday, and instead of feeling the celebratory frisson a non-writer might assume to be my due, I fell into a funk. First drafts, I have learned, are like casual sex. They can be great fun, and they might even feel like love. This week, however, I am knocked up. And starting soon, I'm going to have to start changing diapers.

Or, as I put it to my student earlier: I grew up Catholic. And the message of being a Catholic is: you're a sinner. And you need to repent. But while you're repenting, please keep in mind that you're still a sinner, and it doesn't matter how much good you do in your life, because a couple of total strangers who are distantly related to you pissed off God, like, a million years ago, and so you are inherently sinful, but if you don't toe the line you'll be even more sinful, and then God will be pissed off at you, too. So get on your knees, motherfucker, and get to work.

So, um, yeah, I am not a Catholic anymore. But boy have I brought the lessons of my youth to my writing. Because the message of novel writing is: you suck, and you're going to keep sucking. But it might be possible to suck a little less than other people, so cowboy up and face your suckitude head on.

Revision, as I have said here before, is the process of staring your suckitude in the face and accepting its inevitability, but then trying to work with it somehow. Early in my career I got a terrible review--one of the first generation of Amazon customer comments, in fact. This is what it had to say about my first novel: "It just goes to show, you can't polish a turd."

Ouch. But you know what? You can polish a turd, sometimes to a high sheen, so it doesn't even seem remotely like one anymore. And if you put your mind to it, and if you grew up Catholic, the entire polishing process can be kind of interesting. At least it is for me--or has become thus, after many years of forcing myself to do it. Art is flawed, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get to work burnishing those flaws into something new and better, that stands on its own, independently of you and your dumb ideas.

20 comments:

sjwoo said...

You’ve got to finish what you start, even if you don’t like it. That’s hard. Even if you’ve sort of fallen out of love with your project, you have to go through to the end. Finish it. You can always fix it.

That's from the Spring 2002 issue of Nieman Reports, a journalism journal from Harvard, "Finding Time to Write," by Stewart O'Nan. It is true -- you can always fix it. But to fix it, you have to bring it to completion. I'm a little less than halfway into book #2, and I look forward to that very moment.

Screw God and his Guilt. Congrats on finishing your first draft.

zoe said...

What a brilliant post and great timing for me. I'm finishing a second draft and, stupidly, have started writing a new book. Now I really, really can't face finishing the redraft and then starting round three. This may help me get my A into G.

Have you read any Richard Holloway btw?

Stephen T. said...

Writing at a fast pace for television this all gets so wildly compressed. You finish the draft and you have about two hours to go through elation, depression, terror, self-loathing and insane fanfares of self-puffery then you get the notes and a day later it's revised and ten days later actors are acting their hearts out giving their all to the lines and a month later you are reading live-blogged reports of the episode as it airs, consisting mostly of people erroneously predicting what's about to happen and not even apologizing when fifteen seconds later they are proven long. All of which is to say, your vivid post makes me long for a little time to sink into a state of some kind of awareness along the way...

jrlennon said...

A novelist friend of mine did TV writing for a year or so and didn't enjoy it one bit. I sympathize, that's really hard work.

Sung, keep scribbling...and Zoe, my God, you didn't start another one! Very bad. ;-)

Have not read Richard Holloway...he writes about religion, right? Any particular book you recommend?

I just wrote a piece on the impossibility of actually finishing anything, for the LATimes books blog...if they don't run it, I'll post it over on my website.

rmellis said...

Maybe that's my problem... I was raised agnostic...

zoe said...

I'm reading 'Godless Morality' and, with refernce to the roots of guilt and skewed development of the repressives side of Christianityfinding, it's like being given a license to say, "SEE! I knew it was a load of horse from the beginning." A child intuits lies/ fudging/ ponitless decades of the rosary... Most refreshing as an adult, if only the creeping voice didn't keep trying to get in the back door all the time.

zoe said...

That was actually Dominic posting the last comment, not me. I'm not a survivor.

Art O.T. Grid said...

Oh, PHEW!! Saw the title of this post and thought you were writing about ME.

jrlennon said...

Nah, just say three Hail Munros and an Act of Contradiction and you're good until next week.

Shauna said...

Great post
Yours,
-Guilt Ridden Catholic

AC said...

I've never gotten the Catholic guilt thing. Not raised Catholic myself but grew up going to Catholic schools. I thought the point of the doctrine of original sin was that the whole world was fucked up before you ever got here, so it's not your fault. And for the things that are your fault, you go to confession, do your penance, and all is forgiven.

And yet all my friends from school days who were growing up in Catholic families now look back at it the same way you do. Why this discrepancy between the theology I was taught in class and the experience my friends actually lived?

But about the first draft, what you are describing sounds like what I feel after the end of any big project...graduating from college, earning a promotion, completing a move. The campaign is over, and now comes the nation building. Or like hiking...every time you reach what you thought was the top, you find that it's just the top of the switchback and there's another hard climb ahead.

Congratulations on making it this far!

jrlennon said...

Thanks, AC! There was nothing wrong really with my own personal religious upbringing--I had a good childhood and my parents treated me well. Indeed, the church contributed a great deal to my own moral code, which I still adhere to strongly. So it wasn't Catholic philosophy in general that rubbed me the wrong way, but the uses to which it is (perhaps improperly) put. Ultimately, I didn't like the role that women are supposed to occupy in the church, and I didn't like the notion that "impure thoughts" are a sin, and I didn't like "confessing" to the asshole self-aggrandizing monsignor in my parish, and I didn't like Jesus, the literary character, who was as boring and predictable as any ever devised.

I think the guilt thing is something cultural and familial, and not necessarily philosophical. It's not a major force in my life, luckily...I was exaggerating its effect on me for the sake of the metaphor...

AC said...

You know, now that you mention it, Jesus totally doesn't work as a literary character. In the gospels I wouldn't say he's boring and predictable...more like opaque and unpredictable. And when novelists try to rewrite the gospels as a contemporary bio-epic, they just make it worse. I can't think of one really good version of Jesus in literature or film. (Although I haven't read the Anne Rice one yet, and that might be interesting.) He seems to work better as a vague, off-screen presence that human characters react to. For instance, in The Thin Place vs. in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Stephen said...

AC,

Check out Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew. One of the great films ever made, cast with non-professional actors and shot in various poor villages in Italy. Powerfully gets to the raw tragedy of the story. Scored with Bach and African chants. Rips your heart out. And it was made by a gay atheist communist.

jrlennon said...

The Jesus is pretty good in Jim Crace's book...ah shit what's it called...Quarantine!

jon said...

Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is quite good, though Judas steals the show. I'm a Jewish atheist by birth and conviction, so growing up, the only Jesus story I ever got was Jesus Christ Superstar. Imagine how disappointing the New Testament was after that.
Anyway, there's a story that James Joyce, when asked why he drank so much, said he was doing penance for the great pleasure he got from writing. And congratulations, John.

AC said...

Sorry, Jon. I can't take Jesus Christ Superstar. All those damn hippies. I guess it's marginally better than Godspell.

I will check out the Pasolini film though. Thanks!

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