Why I Abandoned My Novel But Not My Writing
I wrote a novel in college. I took a few creative writing classes and had every intention of one day writing the Great American Novel. Nothing then would have indicated that I would come to despise those 60,000 words I'd written within a few years.
The novel grew organically enough. Over the course of three semesters, I turned a character sketch into a short story, then turned that short story into a much longer one. Soon it was a novel draft of 25,000 words and I accepted the fact that I was, indeed, writing a novel and attempting to fulfill my dream.
Throughout this process I had a creative writing professor who simultaneously nurtured my creativity and gave me sound, though sometimes brutal advice. It was exactly what I needed.
I'm not going to say that my novel had all the workings of the Great American Novel, but it wasn't a bad start for a young writer. Even now I read it and am surprised by how much I like certain observations or certain combinations of words.
Why then would I abandon it? For years afterward, I couldn't have told you. I went from being unquestionably passionate about it to having no motivation whatsoever to continue. At first I thought it was just a creative slump, but after a year I knew it was more than that.
It wasn't until I read Claire Vaye Watkins' essay "On Pandering" that I finally understood.
My novel is about a lonely old man in the 18 hours before his death as he's reminiscing about a haunting experience during the Korean War. Spoiler: he saw a young girl fetching water step on a land mine and get blown up. His attempts to save her alerted the enemy to his position, he gets separated from his group, and has to get reconnected to his US compatriots, whom he has no way of contacting and who all think he's dead. In the meantime he meets a lowly-ranked guy who went AWOL because he was gay and didn't want to be there fighting anyway. The AWOL guy basically went off to die and wasn't expecting to find my protagonist.
They have hints of what might be a relationship by the time they're found. My protagonist felt so bad about not saving the girl that he swore he'd never not save someone again. And yet he didn't speak up when he needed to and thus let the AWOL guy be shot for defecting. This haunts the protagonist all his life and informs every decision he makes.
And there's no happy ending because it's a "literary" novel, so despite carrying around all this trauma for decades and having the opportunity to tell people before he dies, my protagonist never says a thing. He dies with silence on his lips.
The novel is called Silence In the Hearts of Men. And I know what you're thinking---it sounds good, like something you'd maybe want to read, or you at least know other people who are into books like that. So what's the problem?
The problem is that I wrote it wanting to be hailed as the female Cormac McCarthy. When imagining my ideal reader, old white dudes, the products of the Baby Boomers came to mind. I wrote my novel for an audience of gray-haired men because I thought that was the only way to get published: by pandering. Though my creative writing professor is a good man whose insight was incredibly helpful, I'm not surprised he liked my novel. I wrote it for him.
As I became more of the person I am today and more confident in my feminism, I realized I didn't want publishers and literary agents to sell me as "the female Cormac McCarthy." Don't get me wrong, old Cormac is good in his own right and I'm sure anyone who called me that would be doing so as a compliment, but I don't want to be the female version of [insert name of respected male author]. I want my work to be respected on its own merits, not because I can replicate the style of a bestselling, literary male author.
Some might say that my novel isn't pandering at all. It doesn't glorify war, it doesn't dignify my protagonist. He is miserable and lives in squalor. He's old and angry and tormented. No one envies him. He is at war literally fighting battles and he is at war with himself and the man society wants him to be. But because part of my decision-making was the old warning "boys and men don't like reading books by women," and I was already thinking of a pseudonym to hide my gender, and because I felt that to write a male character was safer than a female character, it's pandering enough.
If I'm going to write a novel, I want it to be something I'd like to read. I want to write a novel that has at least one empowered female character. I want to write a novel that passes the Bechdel Test, and not just because I'm actively thinking about the requirements of the test but because that's what flows forth creatively.
My novel is pandering and, by the nature of the story, I can't envision a world where this novel doesn't pander. The pandering is so ingrained that it cannot be edited out without dismantling the entire piece.
I got tired of having this conversation with myself, so I switched to creative nonfiction. It's harder to pander when you're dealing in fact, thus the temptation doesn't arise.
The truth is I'm writing just as much as I always have. Between this blog, my freelance writing, and all the things currently sitting on my hard drive that are works-in-progress, I'm still practicing my craft. I've abandoned my novel, but not my writing.
I don't regret having written my novel, even if I can't stand to read it now. The practice of a long-term project, writing a certain amount every week, editing my work and having my work edited, storyboarding the narrative arc---all of those creative processes were invaluable to my writing practice. Education has a price, and the price of writing is time, dedication, and possibly loathing the result of your efforts.
Will I ever write a novel? I think so. I've got another draft going that's currently 20,000 words, though it takes a backseat to my creative nonfiction. I've never read a story quite like it and I'm excited to see where it goes. Is it the Great American Novel? No, probably not. But now that I'm not succumbing to the pressure to pander, I can't say I care.