Jane Roper on Learning How to Have Fun While Writing Fiction
“Bringing your full self to your work, wielding all of your tools with abandon, is fun at a whole other level.”
I hate writing. I love having written.
For a long time, I had this quote—which has been attributed to a number of different writers, but I prefer to think it was Dorothy Parker—on an index card on the bulletin board over my desk. It was one of several quotations about the arduousness of writing pinned there. Like little riding crops they urged me onward, reminding me with each thwack that if I was suffering for my art, I must be doing it right.
When I first started writing, a few years after college, it was literary fiction I was torturing myself with. I worshipped at the altar of The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories and dreamed of being on one of those Twenty-Under-Whatever lists. I wrote stories that were quiet and painfully sincere, with characters that did a lot of walking, drinking, longing, regretting, and searching for things just out of reach. (What things? They didn’t know! That was the point!)
Sometimes I came up with kooky characters: a Holly-go-Lightly-esque barfly who wore feathered bedroom mules everywhere; a seven-foot-tall aspiring actor; a college student who kept a human fetus in a jar of formaldehyde in his dorm room. But I was never quite sure what to do with these people besides giving them subtle epiphanies. As a result, my stories were, much like said fetus in jar, lifeless. Still, somehow, they were good enough to get me into an MFA program—where I continued to hate writing and love having written.
Enter British author Jim Crace. His novels, including Quarantine, Being Dead, and The Gift of Stones, imagine a vast range of milieus, eras, and states of consciousness with incredible vividness. Crace visited my MFA program during my second year to do manuscript consultations, and I submitted the first fifty pages of a novel in progress to him—a World War II-era story loosely inspired by my grandmother’s life. I was, of course, hoping for praise and validation. Instead, Crace looked at me and said something I’ve never forgotten: “It’s well written. But you don’t seem to be having much fun.”
I was confused. Fun? Didn’t he know writing wasn’t supposed to be fun? Was this a British thing? I made some sort of half-hearted protestation. It wasn’t as if I was miserable while I wrote. I many times experienced those frissons of satisfaction that come with hitting on the right detail, successfully solving a tricky plot problem, or crafting the perfect scene. That counted as fun, right? Also, I really enjoyed commiserating with my fellow writers over too many beers about how hard writing was. That was definitely fun.
Crace was unconvinced. He told me that I needed to figure out what and how to write so that I could really dive in, let loose, and enjoy myself. My work would come alive when I did.
I nodded politely, and went back to plodding away, convinced that if writing felt like exercise—the un-fun kind, done on weight machines and stair climbers—I was doing it right.
The irony is that all the while I actually was doing some writing that I found insanely fun. It just wasn’t fiction. I wrote the invitation to my MFA graduation ceremony in the form of a short story parody, rife with intentionally pretentious metaphors and dialogue clipped to the point of absurdity. I had a humor piece on “workshop-speak” published in Poets & Writers. I emailed friends and family a goofy account of a disastrous cross-country move via U-Haul with my husband that started getting forwarded around to people I didn’t even know—the 2002 version of going viral.
These things were a joy to write—a relief from the grind of writing fiction. The same was true of a blog I began writing several years later, shortly after I became pregnant with twins, and continue writing to this day. There’s almost always humor woven into my posts, even when the topics are serious ones. Hell, I even managed to make parts of my daughter’s (victorious, thank God) journey through pediatric leukemia funny. My debut memoir, Double Time, about parenting twins and dealing with major depression, likewise had a strong comedic bent.
But when it came to fiction, I more or less kept it straight, with the exception of the occasional side character for comic relief. I wrote what I thought I should be writing—well-wrought, realistic fiction that would get me published and maybe even celebrated by the literary powers that be.
Over the course of fifteen years, I squeezed out three novels, including the one Jim Crace had seen. Periodically, I would hear his voice in the back of my mind, exhorting me to have fun in that charming British accent of his. But I ignored it and looked up at the Dorothy Parker quote on my bulletin board instead. Thwack.
I also shrugged off my writer friends who for years told me that I had a great, humorous voice in so much of my nonfiction, and why not bring it into my fiction? My husband was the biggest and most persistent proponent of this idea. “You’re not using all your tools,” he told me, again and again. He fervently believed that once I figured out how to bring my voice and humor to my novels, I would find success.
To which I said: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
But when my third novel, which took me five years to write, went unpublished, I knew I had to start doing things differently. At first, I thought maybe the solution was to give up writing fiction and stick to essays and memoir. There, at least, I knew how to bring all of myself to the page.
But no sooner had I made this resolution than a new idea for a novel came along: I saw a news story online about a man who came home to find his wife and her lover, a car mechanic, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage where they had been fooling around in her idling car. It got me thinking about humiliation and shame, and the awesome power of the internet and social media to amplify them.
I could have written a serious novel exploring these themes. But the idea of it was utterly exhausting (no pun intended). There was no way I was going to spend years slogging my way through another not-that-fun-to-write book, only to be met with more rejection. And as someone (not Dorothy Parker) once famously said: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
I decided to give myself a deadline—a complete draft in one year or less—and a mandate: To have fun. No worrying about whether what I was writing was “important,” or “literary” or worthy of my fancy MFA program. No thinking about what the hoitiest and toitiest readers would think. No cleaving to realism, either. I took the Dorothy Parker quote down, and replaced it with a something that Ann Lamott, in Bird by Bird, recommends writers tape to their walls, a line from the movie Stripes: “Hey—lighten up, Francis.”
And I did. The first step was to get rid of the carbon monoxide poisoning. I was a beginner at the whole funny fiction endeavor and starting so tragically seemed like intermediate level stuff. Instead, I had the extramarital shenanigans happen in a spontaneously combusting 1969 Dodge Charger. No death, just some coughing and a little vomit.For once, I actually looked forward to working on my novel.
I switched up the genders, making the husband the cheater, and a senatorial candidate for good measure, to ensure that his affair would cause a public scandal. Then, I doubled down on the betrayed spouse’s humiliation: As she watches her garage and her marriage go up in flames, a wannabe paparazzo snaps a photo of the scene that captures a period stain on the back of her pants—and it promptly goes viral.
By starting with this absurd scenario, I gave myself permission to go as broad as I wanted. From there, I was off to the races. Less than a year later, I had the first draft of my new novel, The Society of Shame, published this month. It is satirical and silly and over-the-top, and also includes some tender and introspective moments, and a lot of social commentary about internet culture, online shaming, and feminism.
It’s not the kind of fiction I used to aspire to write. But it’s a reflection of everything I’ve got: all the things I love to write about, the things that intrigue me, and the things I do best. And—surprise, surprise—it was an absolute blast to write.
This isn’t to say that the process was effortless. I don’t think it’s possible to write a book without ever feeling stuck or stymied or occasionally convinced that it’s not going to be any good. But for once, I actually looked forward to working on my novel. I even caught myself smiling sometimes as I wrote. (Dorothy Parker is surely rolling her eyes in her grave.)
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to let go of what I thought I should write and embrace what I did best and enjoyed most. But you can’t choose how long it will take you to hit your writerly stride. Apparently, I needed years of rejection to get it through my skull that I should be doing things differently. (Sorry, Jim Crace. And sorry, husband.)
But maybe my journey wouldn’t have been quite so long if, as writers, we spent as much or more time talking about the joy of writing as we do about the pain. Maybe, as teachers and mentors, we need to more forcefully exhort aspiring writers to lean into the aspects of their work that they find the most satisfying and exciting. In my case that means humor, but for others it might mean incorporating more of their real-life passions or obsessions in their work, writing in a different genre, or experimenting with language or form.
Complaining about the pain of writing—which I still do from time to time—is undeniably fun, and makes for better bon mots for the bulletin board. But bringing your full self to your work, wielding all of your tools with abandon, is fun at a whole other level. And, in most cases, it yields much better art.
The Society of Shame by Jane Roper is available from Anchor, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.