I tried to write this post last week but it didn't work so I deleted it and now I try again, taking a shot at my topic from a slightly different angle. We'll see how it goes this time. The difficulty seems to be that I don't know where to start this discussion.
I'm working on a new book, which is no surprise because I'm always working on a new book. The big theme of the book seems at this point to be doubt. Self doubt, I guess. The male lead is having a sort of middle-age crisis of confidence and he takes steps to combat his self doubts, steps that have tragicomic results. Nobody gets dead in this one, though, which is a real departure for me. More on that anon. The female lead is having a crisis of faith, which I also see as a sort of problem of self doubt, as in possibly when people lose religious faith, they don't doubt the religion so much as they doubt their own relationship to that religion.
So clearly the conflicts in this one are not the sort of man-versus-man or man-versus-society conflicts I've been writing about, and the plot developments aren't going to involve a lot of violence. As I say, that's a change for me. Is this post going anywhere? Yes, but slowly. Hang on.
One of the important questions I ask myself while writing is "What am I thinking about that makes me write this?" Another way of saying that is "What about this material interests me and/or makes me uncomfortable?" I always look for that stuff and try to relentlessly follow it through the narrative, because that's always the best stuff in the book. So for the male character, I'm following threads that have to do with disappointment and fear and pride and a sort of American machismo. For the female character, I'm following threads that have to do with ambition and hope and community. I see that the guy has doubt about his past while the woman has doubt about her future, sort of. Though it's more complicated than that.
Anyway, I am struggling with how to present this material, with how universal the themes are or how idiosyncratic and therefore requiring a lot of explanation to the reader. I'm also struggling with the idea of truth in a story.
Some of you already know that earlier this month my literary agent and I parted company. We had two novels out on submission this year and neither of them sold to publishers, and when I sent her my most recent book my agent declared that she has no idea how to sell it so perhaps she's not the best agent for me. Fair enough and no hard feelings, but it of course gets me thinking. Possibly the reason my novels that were on submission weren't picked up is because the truths I was illuminating in them aren't particularly welcome truths. After all, both books are pretty bleak because I don't have a particularly cheerful outlook on life. We all end up dead, after all, and lots of horrific things are happening all around us and most of the things we attempt will be failures, most relationships don't work out, etc. I think those are true statements.
But are those the only truths I believe? Don't I believe other, less determinedly grim truths? Why don't I write about those, too? I'm reading a book of short stories by Thomas Mann, and one of the stories, "Disorder and Early Sorrow" is, despite the title, one of the most luminous, beautiful and love-filled stories I've ever read. Why don't I lean a bit more in that direction and a bit less in the direction of such bloody-minded works as "Hamlet?"
I'm also reading the collected letters of Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being. It's fabulous stuff because O'Connor could write a good letter and she's bluntly honest and funny and thinks deeply about writing and reading. It's also got me thinking that perhaps Ms O'Connor had a very narrow field of vision in her work; she was trying to do essentially one thing and one thing only in her stories, and if you don't like her subtext you won't like her work and pretty much I think that you either love or hate O'Connor's work as a whole. This is the danger of having only one or two truths you are pursuing in your work. Maybe. This is all provisional, as usual.
Anyway, my whole writing world is in flux. I see that as a good thing, because one likes to grow and surprise oneself, yes? I don't quite know how I'm going to handle any of the themes of my new novel and I don't quite know any more how I feel about my previous work, but I keep writing and I'll just see what I write when I've written it. This post doesn't do any of you any good at all, I know. But it's what I've got today while Davin recovers from his post-birthday hangover.