The Longest Winter: Or Why It Took Me 15 Years to Finish My Novel
Max Winter Goes Year-By-Year on a Very Long Journey
I knew exactly why it wouldn’t work to write an essay explaining why it took me 15 years—or an exact third of my life—to complete my debut novel, Exes. Think of a map where 1 inch equals 1 inch. (“Take a left at last week, head to six months ago, and it’s just on your right, where 2004 used to be. You can’t miss it!”) Even so, I stared at a blank screen long enough for the sun to reach my side of the house and burn my left eye through the makeshift blinder of my cupped hand. (Do you start feeling glaucoma right away? Does it make your eye water and twitch?) But 15 years is a long time, and the imitative fallacy isn’t always that, plus I could’ve really used an account like this at some rocky point in year eight, say. Or seven. Six, or five even. Hell, at any point, really. Writers feel mostly alone and half-mad enough as it is, is all I’m saying.
Thanks to my inability to recall my own high school experience in even the slightest emotional detail, I’m teaching English at my Alma mater, a place I hadn’t liked the first time around and where I’d hardly shined. But where had I shined? They gave me a scholarship. Now I’m 30 years old, it’s November, and I haven’t planned a lesson since the first week of school, am lucky to sleep maybe four hours a night, and every night but Friday—which is for crying and eventually drinking—close down the RISD library (open to the public till midnight). People said the second year would be easier, but to me it still feels like driving four cars home. All my passengers are drunk, and every other block I have to pull over so they can throw up; I hold their hair like they do in half the essays I read. Plus I still don’t know what a thesis is. So I push aside the previous week’s stack of papers and instead take a pass at a story about a vacationing lummox—a projected worst-case amalgam of some of my most hapless high school classmates—and I’m relieved to discover that, yes, it is, in fact, better than my students’ work. But now I can’t get out of bed. I call in sick—which I am—and apply to MFA programs.
I am loudly disparaging French comedies when my future wife, Olivia, visiting from France, walks into the video store where I now work. She’s a sculptor and we argue about which artistic discipline is hardest. “They’re all the same, quand même…” she says. “Pas quand même,” I go. As if to prove my point, I start exploring the narrative perspectives of my hardest-to-please video store customers—customers with made-up names or those (as often as not, and not for nothing) whose last names are identical to the streets where they live. “Do you have any coming-of-age films featuring redheads,” they ask, neither removing their dark glasses nor paying their shocking late fees.
While visiting Cornell, whose MFA program waitlisted me the previous spring, Olivia and I stumble upon a Francesca Woodman retrospective and, without knowing the first thing about either her or her work, immediately recognize Providence. We both know these dusty, haunted spaces intimately. My wife, having lost an ex to suicide, knows what it looks like and how it feels. Meanwhile, the 70s were the 70s all over the world. I suddenly had what was at that point the first, but would later become the sixth chapter of my book, then-clumsily-reverse-engineered from its climax, which unfolded, Woodmanesquely, in the unlit fireplace of an abandoned tenement.
The fireplace story gets me waitlisted again, this time at Irvine, but thanks to another prospective student being awful over the phone, I just sneak in, despite having taken my call at work. “So you’re interested in class,” Geoffrey Wolff writes in his first critique, meaning social class. “Me too.” Then he explains all that he couldn’t see in my submission, like that sunset, and that fucking straw… Jesus. He also takes care to point out the many grand gestures my story hasn’t earned, like a climactic baptism in the Pacific. No, I think, hanging my head. “That poor fish,” he teases, and I’ve learned my lesson. Well, this lesson, at least. I don’t yet know just how many mistakes are left to be made—and had I known… well… I’d like to think I still would’ve kept my chin up, or nose to the grindstone or whatever, but who knows? Point being, I’m still thinking one day at a time, which at this point I imagine means a couple two-three years at the most…
When discussing one another’s stories in workshop we get scolded for bringing up “reality,” or what Michelle Latiolais—never failing to credit her teacher, John Williams—refers to as “This amateur performance.” Sometimes she also adds his dismissive wave in the direction of the window. So we pay attention to the only thing worth paying attention to: what’s on the page. Because it’s much too easy to discuss what isn’t on it, and absolutely nothing about writing fiction is easy. Or practical. A close read and an open mind: this much we owe one another. My workshop mates encourage me not to try so hard, but also to, you know, work a lot fucking harder. Some also question the extent to which I strain for narrative economy, which at Irvine isn’t considered anything special, let alone something somehow inherently worthy of praise. “Why not just write everything?” Asks someone who always does, more or less, and I give it a shot, too, to mixed results. But for the first time, I sense a way in—or is it out?
Meanwhile, I can all but feel taste burning off, can feel its subtle, self-defeating violence being lifted away like a veil it turns out I couldn’t see through, either. Over spring break, Olivia and I go to Big Sur and while I fail to propose using the ring of a petrified redwood, as I had planned, I do manage to impregnate her, as I hadn’t. My son, Noah, is born on the day I finally decide to get my files in order. I’m halfway finished when Olivia goes into labor.
When writing, I unintentionally only listen to music made by people who lost some combination of their minds and their patience for the music business. Sad, unmistakably fucked-up music is my thundershirt. From time to time, I also write with Noah in my arms.
All three of us sleep intermittently, for two-hour stretches, but mostly I stay up and make the sorts of terrible, self-defeating narrative choices that only take a handful of weeks, but years to undo. The difficult video store customer trope has gotten so far out of hand that one chapter takes the form of a self-help brochure advertising a purely positive form of English. (Laugh all you want, but you try writing a 5,000-word story that doesn’t feature a single negative construction, some time. Actually, no. Don’t.)
My laptop dies, so I borrow my wife’s to finish my thesis, but its Word is French, so everything underlines in red, which is fine, but the now legal-pad length pages get cut off when printed, which isn’t. I pirate US Word, but all my documents somehow retain these Gallic features. I copy and paste, and copy and paste, but no luck. I launder the files in emails, but even then. I eventually I break down and retype everything, which turns out not to be a half bad way to revise, actually. (There’s no fucking way, for instance, I’m going to lay out that goddamned brochure all over again.) I finish an early draft of Exes—then called, what? I hardly remember, which is half the point… Louder Than Good? I only know that certain readers object even to its title, along with many, many other things. I listen to “Make Your Own Kind of Music” on repeat for a week. We move back to Rhode Island—a decision based almost entirely on sleep deprivation.
I get work as an adjunct. You’ve read the articles, so you know exactly how much it sucks to be an adjunct. I give it my all. But as far as the book goes, it turns out there was a reason all the Providence chapters came to me when I was someplace else. There are many reasons why I’m not a journalist.
Another year of only teaching. I teach and I teach and I teach. But mostly I grade and I grade and I grade. I grade papers in my car, stopped at lights or in traffic. I prep lessons and, out of pocket, buy books for courses that get cancelled a week before the semester’s start. When I try to return an especially expensive set, a seller on Amazon tell me he’s in the business of selling books, not buying them. I start to wonder what kind of business I’m in. We qualify for state health insurance—which, in the anxious days before the ACA, is something of a mixed blessing. My novel no longer has a name, and I don’t so much as click on its folder. I feel like Schrodinger not opening the box, but also like the Mets still paying Bobby Bonilla for having not played for them in 2000.
Thanks in large part to soon-to-be-repealed state tax credits, Olivia gets a bunch of well-paying movie set-dressing work, and I manage to carve out a little time for the book, now titled Cloakrooms and Parlors—a title my pal and former workshop mate Matt Sumell dislikes for lots of reasons, all of them valid. I win a fellowship. I write on the school breaks I can suddenly almost afford to think of as vacations. Our traveling next-door neighbor graciously offers his empty house for me to write in. We lose our health care and max out one credit card, then the other. “Okay,” I think. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I win another state-sponsored fellowship, and I realize that I could do literally almost anything other than adjuncting for a living and a) earn more money; and b) have more time to write. When I say no to editing the school’s literary journal—again, and for free, again—I inadvertently burn a bridge. I’m somehow okay with it.
Between collecting, my most recent fellowship, and my wife’s full-time employment, I manage to spend a chunk of the year writing and cooking/cleaning/picking up/dropping off. I finish a redraft of the novel, now called Indian Givers, an intentionally problematic title only Bill Clegg ever likes even a little bit, but which he likes a whole lot, so I stick with it longer than I should. But I also call myself a housewife, which I find less embarrassing than calling myself writer. I write in the kitchen, but also in the playground, at a folding beach chair and a kidney shaped lap desk beneath a shade tree or in the direct sun, depending on the weather.
My cousin and an old friend both die, suddenly and much too young, within two months of each other, and for roughly the same reason: unhelpful voices and the drugs—prescribed and otherwise—they took to quiet them. I revise the redraft, run out of money, go back to yardwork, get laid off, send the book out to agents. I write a lot, but it feels like I write eulogies, mostly. I start narrating audio books, but the second book, theological non-fiction—which I’m already a day into reading—refers, on page 118, to “homosexuality [as] unethical,” in an immaterial aside a better editor would’ve cut, if only for stylistic reasons. I tell my boss I can’t read it—that I literally cannot bring myself to voice the sentiment—and he suggests that maybe this isn’t the right job for me. I have no choice but to agree.
To cut back even further on our expenses, we housesit for a Medievalist with no TV and a mistrusted microwave in the basement and only one clothes closet. There’s also chipmunks in the gutters, and a groundhog I call Tony. I get an agent and Olivia takes a full-time job in not-so-nearby Framingham for pretty decent pay and benefits, in large part to buy me the time and therapy I need to finish the book. But the drive up, and especially back, triggers her PTSD, and it’s always fucking snowing, so I start chauffeuring her. While she’s at work, I finish what will be my agent’s and my last draft of the novel in a well-appointed and seldom-occupied conference room in the basement of the Wellesley College student center. There’s a path that winds along the pond and through the woods, and the men’s rooms are immaculate. I nod at everyone whose eyes meet mine and make sure my shirts have collars. An idea for my next book starts to take shape, but now I’m really getting ahead of myself…
In a span of three months, I take a job at a bookstore, sell my book to Catapult, now titled Spite House, and get fired from the bookstore. They fire me for ordering too many books—there are all kinds of titles we don’t have and should, but it’s the lack of James Baldwin in particular that sets me off—and also maybe for wondering a little too loudly if we couldn’t maybe figure out a way to keep the sun from bleaching the spines of those we already carry, especially S-Z, Fiction. I couldn’t be happier.
But I almost immediately go back to adjuncting, because what else can I do? The university has only asked me back because my pal and fellow-adjunct Bob has suddenly died—we say that, but isn’t every death sudden?—in the middle of the fall semester. “I would do this job for free,” Bob used to say about teaching writing, even though his ex-wife got his cop pension. “After what I put her through?” He would say. “She deserves it.” So what am I gonna do? Say no? We were supposed to have met up for clams for two years now, at least. We act like we have all the time in the world, which might be why we call death sudden.
I cover a maternity leave at that same high school from before—my high school. But this time I can’t forget what it was like the first time around. I beg off the field trips that were always hard for me; show theatrical adaptations, documentaries, biopics; don’t hand back papers. During tests and group work, I work on my revisions at the lectern. In order to stop my laptop from fading into whiteness, I now must apply more or less constant pressure to the lower left corner of the screen with my middle finger while I type with my right hand and my left thumb. Legal gets increasingly antsy about a particular narrative choice of mine. I spend about three of the maybe five minutes I can spare feeling bad for myself, and then—with two weeks to go before the galley goes into production—begin overhauling the third-oldest chapter in the book, now finally titled Exes. I put the finishing touches on the revision—which, both luckily and terrifyingly, is somehow better—while at the park where Noah and his buddies play after school. A baseball game crops up beside me, so I pick up to move, trying all the while to avoid a six-year-old with an aluminum bat, but he steps into his warm-up swing like Ichiro and I take the barrel right in the nuts. But at least he misses the laptop. Later, over by the sandbox, another father—an ER doc, who once saw me for what might have been a bat bite but was more likely just a stiff neck from freaking the fuck out—asks me how I can possibly concentrate on my work. “It’s not easy,” I tell him. “But what are you gonna do?”
Pretty clearly, I haven’t taken the straight, clear path to much in life. This is what my book’s about, if it’s about any one thing: about trying to get back home to figure things out, and getting all kinds of lost along the way, and winding up almost exactly where you started. But with stories.
And now here I am, writing this essay instead of the second novel I have to believe won’t also take 15 years. But all this looking back feels, well, appropriate—like an imitative verity, in other words, something I’ve always told my students does, in fact, exist. All along, I’ve been searching for something different than my book’s narrator, Clay, who seeks to make sense of his kid brother’s suicide, an impossible but inevitable quest, but I’ve been searching all the same. When I ask my son what my next book should be called, he says without hesitation: A Man’s Work Is Never Done.