It is like losing a year of your life.
To what would you lose a year of your life?
–Louise Glück, “Landscape”
You wrote a novel so that people would believe that you knew your own mind.
No one believes you when you say you don’t want to write a novel. They always think you’re lying about it in order to conceal your insecurity, your fear, your trepidation. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in want of an agent, of a publishing contract, of acceptance for their love of writing shall be in want of a novel. You laugh at this. You call it a cliché. You shrug. You say Some really great story collections out this year. You retweet short stories online. Your palms sweat in your pockets. You feel a beat of panic. You fear that it is true. You ask yourself if you are a writer if there is no novel to prove that you are what you say you are.
You comfort yourself with writing groups. You laugh. You feel better. You drink the warm seltzer and eat the stale pretzels. You talk about plot. You talk about scale. You talk about lines of tension. You fret over sentences. You add em dashes. You subtract em dashes. You build. You worry. You feel a bolt of terror, blue-white like lightning, when your friends say they are working on a novel, a quiet little thing on a disk somewhere, slowly accumulating pages, turning into something dense, something heavy. You feel relief when they say they’ve put it aside. You hate yourself for feeling relief. You worry.
In the dark, you swim endlessly toward nothing.
You decide that in order to write a novel, you are going to make lists.
First a list of all of the reasons you have failed to write a novel before: You are lazy, you find it boring, you do not understand time, you get distracted easily, you don’t know what plot is, you don’t like writing about New York, you don’t know enough about literature, about the world.
Then a list of your strengths, because you are sad about the list of reasons you have failed: You are good at mood, tone, and a certain kind of irritated crankiness. You write decent dialogue. You understand structure, sort of. You are fast. This revelation comes to you late one night, out of nowhere, almost so obvious that you do not remark upon it. You are fast. Your greatest gift is your capacity to generate thousands of words at a real clip.
Then comes the hail of your weaknesses: You aren’t smart. You aren’t gifted with great intelligence or sensitivity as a writer. You do not consider yourself particularly profound or interesting. You do not do voices or make up wild structures. You are boring. Traditional. Conservative. But typing fast is a gift, even a minor one. You cling to this as the list of weaknesses grows and grows—plot, no sense of character, everyone is gay, everyone is sad, you have no thoughts, you have no ideas.
You take stock of the state of things. You contrive a set of solutions. You know that if you do not succeed in writing this novel, no one will take you seriously. You feel desperate to get it right. To reach the end of the document, even if you throw it away.You sink low in the warmth of the car and you think about your novel, your dumb book which at that point you still call GARBAGE NOVEL in Google Drive.
Because you are bad at time, you decide that your novel will take place over one weekend. Because you are bad at making up things, you decide to lift the surface details from your life, to use places and things that you know. You extract from your life large morphological features and populate your draft with these. You change things. You move things around. You revisit all of the horrible things that people have said to you in your most vulnerable moments. You try to feel compassion for these people. You try to imagine the state of their inner lives. You give them the benefit of the doubt. You come to understand them. This understanding turns into characters. Into situation. The fiction emerges from the real.
You write 10,000 words a day. You write at night, in the lab, when everyone else is gone. You rise from your desk to check your digests. You make agarose gels. You check for the success in your CRISPR experiments. You dissect hundreds, thousands of gonads, perform the hours-long staining and imaging experiments to see if it has all worked. You measure your science against your writing. You build scenes quickly. You know that if you linger, you will not finish. You write to outpace your doubt. You write and the novel begins to accrete and take shape. You can feel it stretching in your mind. You live in the novel. You live inside of its dimensions. You live in the novel and you live in lab.
This is not the easiest thing that you have ever done, but it is not the hardest. It is not unpleasant, writing this novel. You fall into a routine. For five weeks, you work in lab and at night, while you are still working in lab, you also write long columns of text. You have changed your word processor so that its margins are huge, swallow the page and turn the writing into a narrow band of black scrawl. You cannot even read it as you type so you type quickly. There are days when you cannot write, however. Days of doubt and quiet. Days when the science is more important, must be more important, and so the novel sits in the back of your mind while you do your work, while you hold your head low over your bench and pick worms and breed them. While you select for markers. While you watch them get sick and die because of what you have done to them. You consider the sadness of it. The sheer waste of science. All those nematodes perish so that you can have one strain. You think, with a silly kind of lyricism, about how this is not dissimilar from writing. All those words you waste. All of those characters you imperil and throw away. It is the nature of creation. There is always waste.
In the middle of the novel, you know that there is something important you need to do. The entire thing hinges on this one moment. You’ve been planning it since the outset. But you do not know if you can write it. You ask yourself is it right? Is it wrong? You ask yourself if your doubt is wisdom or fear. You ask yourself if you can go on this way? You do not write for two weeks. You lie in bed, feverish and sick with doubt, sick with the thought of all the wasted words. You go to lab and then you go home and you grieve the silence in your mind. Your stomach hurts. You cannot think. You doubt. You doubt. You doubt.
But then, you are going home from a salon where you read and talked with friends. It is almost midnight, and you are going home so that you can go to lab before 1:30 in the morning. Your experiment is almost ready to be checked. The Uber takes you out past the capital and scuttles along frat row. You admire the houses, the low branches of the trees. You sink low in the warmth of the car and you think about your novel, your dumb book which at that point you still call GARBAGE NOVEL in Google Drive. Your friends were supportive. But you feel like a failure anyway. You feel like the worst kind of writer, the one who says over and over for years and years that they are working on a novel, but by which they mostly mean failing to write and getting obsessed with both their failure to write and also the thing they are failing to write.Your friends know that you are prickly and annoyed when people call you a novelist, and so they call you a novelist at every chance. They say The novelist, Brandon Taylor, and you want to die of shame.
You hate intractable questions. It is what your advisor mentioned in a recent meeting with you, that you had become, after much training and brutalization, very adept at designing experiments for questions with tractable answers but also that you had somehow become a bit scared. A bit afraid. What she meant was that she wanted you to go for the throat, that’s how she said it. Go for the throat, but you said that you only liked to pick fights you could win, that taking on intractable questions was how a person wasted time and what you hate more than anything is wasting time.
But in the back of that Uber, you hear a loud crack, and you look out the window, and there, racing across the sky is a bolt of lightning. It is one of those spring storms that sometimes crop up in Madison. And you realize that this is what you have been missing. Your way in. The weather. You take out your notebook and you scribble in the backseat of that Uber: There were storms all the time.
You write the middle section of your novel in a heat, at pace, but when it is done, you fall into another fugue. You know now that everything must come together. The book must begin its descent, but you have no idea how to do it. Anyone can start a novel in the way that almost anyone can throw a ball into the air, but to catch it is something else. And so you are depressed and unable to write for days, and the clock is ticking and you start to feel that you will never finish this book, but you start slowly. You pick one little detail and you build out from there. You draw on the lines of tension you have established. You reverse engineer the structure the ending from the beginning. There is rhyme as the two halves of the novel slide past each other, and the rhyme gives it heat, and you understand then that meaning comes indirectly when a story arcs toward its conclusion. This feels like a relief.
After five weeks, you are done and exhausted and the novel sits on your drive for a while. You have parted with the agent who prompted you to write the novel. You have no agent and no prospects and you are leaving science to go study creative writing. You put the novel in a drawer. You do not open it again for many months when you require something from it. Other agents make offers to represent it, make suggestions. But you are tired of the idea of being known as a novelist. You are more interested in refining your stories. You find an agent who believes you and who matches your apathy for the novel. You send it to her and tell her not to read it, and she does not, and this feels like the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you.
She is excited by your stories. You delight in this as you work on the pieces together. She teaches you to write. To think clearly about your intentions. Your agent is the writing teacher that your writing teachers are not. She is firm and she is direct and she teaches you to lose sentiment, to lean into your impulses. She teaches you how to spot the places where you have betrayed yourself with indirect language, with soft-focus vagueness. She teaches you to look out for yourself, how to check the ground underfoot. Your agent makes you a writer.
Your stories get better, get better, get better, but then, they get a little worse. You have wrung them out too much. They have become threadbare because you have been raking them back and forth to get all the mess out. Your agent reads your novel in a panic. She reads your novel and then tells you that she has read your novel and wants to talk to you about it. You feel great fear at this prospect. You feel betrayed. You feel she will tell you that you are not the writer she thought you were. You are afraid she will say that you are not what you think you are.
But she says the novel is good. That it is a real book. That she is excited by it. You are not the writer she thought you were. You are something else.
You feel so relieved by this that you do not really understand what is happening to you. She would like to sell the novel, and before you can stop yourself, you say But my stories, and she says, laughing almost, Yes, those too. And because you have worked together for months on the stories, you know they are not a consolation prize, that her love for those stories is not a placation. That she does love them. And you find a way to be okay with this.
You find a way to be okay with letting the novel back into your life. You have an uneasy relationship with this novel. You were a different person when you wrote it. You hardly recognize the writing. It feels like a book written by an optimist. You cackle at your own stupidity. He didn’t even know what character was, you think to yourself about yourself. What is this POV? God, what an idiot. You read back through your novel and try to see what your agent saw. You try to understand how she could read this and think that it is good.There is rhyme as the two halves of the novel slide past each other, and the rhyme gives it heat, and you understand then that meaning comes indirectly when a story arcs toward its conclusion.
You fear that it is that thing white people do when they read black people’s work, that they do not engage with the craft. That they only see a novel about black isolation and black loneliness, and nothing else. You worry that what she sees is not a novel at all but a series of diversity statements. You fear that you will become one of those writers who makes art that makes white people just uncomfortable enough to say that they felt something. You fear that it is bad, frankly, because you are not a novelist. You do not like novels. You are a story writer. You write many more stories while you wait for your agent to sell your novel and first book of stories. You write them almost to make sure you believe yourself when you say you are a story writer.
Your friends know that you are prickly and annoyed when people call you a novelist, and so they call you a novelist at every chance. They say The novelist, Brandon Taylor, and you want to die of shame. When the news of the book deal spreads across Twitter, people say YOU WROTE A NOVEL? YOU? And you have no choice but to accept this.
In the run-up to publication, people ask you how you wrote your novel. You are candid about the agent, about the lists. They marvel at the 10,000 words in a single sitting. You say I did what I had to do in order to finish. You say that novel writing is practical. That you used your science mind to come up with a set of contrivances that would allow you to finish. They marvel, these novel people. You seethe. You wait to be asked about your stories. You long to be asked to talk about Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and Danielle Evans and Lauren Groff. But no one wants to talk about stories. They are too busy gaping at your process. They are too busy feeling impressed. And so you say I’ve always thought of myself as a story writer. And they pshaw and say Really? I could never do that.
And you bite your tongue because you recognize the condescension in which people describe short stories as being too hard, too difficult. It is like when men call women writer’s smart and sharp, a compliment that is actually a dismissal, a refusal to engage in the content of their work. You go to readings, you read from your stories, people clap, and when, during the post-reading mingling, it comes out that you have a novel on the way, they whistle and say Wow, so amazing! A novelist! And you yet again chafe to correct the record.
At parties, they celebrate your novel. They say kind things about it. They clap and they clap and they smile and they laugh. And all the while you seethe because you have had to betray some long-held principle for the sake of a little peace. You keep a tiny, furious fire going inside of you. And you plot your revenge against them. You plan to write an essay to publish around the time your novel comes out. You plan to set the whole thing ablaze as the farce it is. You plan and you plot and you smile, and you say Thank you.
But then one day, it changes somehow. You are asked by your editor or your agent or one of your dear friends how it feels to be going out in support the novel after having written years ago. And your first impulse is to say I mean, who cares, but you do not say this. You let the feeling expand, deepen, become what it is. You realize that you are being thoughtful. And you scrape over this thought again and again, in the space of a moment, and then there it is.
It is like finding five dollars in your pocket. That is what having this novel come out is like. Like finding a gift that someone else gave you. Stumbling upon some bit of charity. These words you wrote in order to change the character of your life, these words you wrote in order to tear a little hole in your universe so that you might escape through it, these words which you wrote in order to tell a story like the one you’ve always wanted to read. It is not the you that is now. It is a different version of yourself, and so it is a kindness to yourself. You are a little overwhelmed at the thought of it. You forget to be surly and mad about people calling you a novelist. You forget to be furious at the mischaracterization. You are grateful to that version of yourself. You are grateful to this book. You smile to your editor or your agent or your dear friends, and you say I’m happy, I think. It feels like something someone else made for me.
It is strange. You wrote a novel to change your life, and when your life changed, you resented the novel for changing it, as if you expected things to change and also stay the same.
You are still not convinced by the concept of a novel. You are not made a better writer or a more complete writer by it. The experience changed your work, it’s true, because you cannot spend that long writing so intensely down into a space and emerge as you were. You learn something about yourself. Your stamina. Your ability to think in many different dimensions at the same time. You discover resources you did not know you possessed.
What was it like, they ask you, in interviews, to write this novel? Writing a novel is like setting your life on fire for no reason other than to see what part of it is flammable.
Real Life, by Brandon Taylor, is available now from Riverhead.
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