What If I Wasn’t Meant to Be a Novelist?
Aaron Shulman on Realizing the Thing He Wanted Most Maybe Wasn't for Him
From the age of 17 until I turned 33, my life revolved around one overriding and seemingly grand obsession: fiction—reading it, writing it, and believing in it like a religion.
After finishing college, the thing I wanted most from life, which burned a painful yet delicious hole in my chest every day upon waking, was to complete a novel. I knew that until I achieved this goal, I would be filled with a quenchless, anxious longing. So with what retrospectively now seems a shocking lack of reflection, I sacrificed many things in its pursuit: financial security, a clear career arc, and any sort of thoughtful long-term planning. Why would I have done otherwise? I had a long-term plan: to finish my novel, and then everything else would dutifully sprinkle itself into place. (In the ongoing job interview that is life, I’ve learned that my greatest strength, as the bromide goes, is indeed my greatest weakness: pathological optimism.)
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I see now that I was at the beginning of the devotional flailing lunge that is a literary life. I had no reliable model for how to construct one, just my devouring need to occupy the liminal chamber between my mind and the words that came out of it. I was supremely confident that my approach to living literarily would lead to success.
What was success for me? First: a brilliant novel. Second: publication, of course.
Just days before turning 30—after completing an MFA, stretching a decent one-year grant into two years of living, and then burning through my savings and meager freelance income—I finally had a completed draft. It had taken three years (not counting the five years of failed attempts at other novels) of regimented isolation that was both exhilarating and exhausting, drenching self-loathing when I wasn’t productive, and way, way too much sitting.
The result was a svelte . . . 600 pages (I was sure I had been mercilessly darling-killing in trimming it to this length). The complex narrative and rich characters I had created, never mind the important, artful things I had to say, demanded—nay, required—maximalist dimensions. Looking back, I see I was a casualty of a creative paradigm Ira Glass talks about: the sophistication of my taste far outstripped my ability to produce quality work of my own. Nevertheless, I still recall the day as soaked with joy. In spite of my Panglossian nature, all those years something in me had doubted that I would ever get to the end, that in spite of the abundant proof that lots of people finished novels, the suspicion persisted that I wouldn’t be one of them. Yet I had done it. That night I went out to a crowded bar with friends, dizzy with elation. I felt like a helium-filled balloon dancing against the ceiling.
My success, however, turned out to be the beginning of my failure, the first death throes of a dream. After all, if you never finish a novel, you save yourself finding out if it’s any good or if anyone wants to publish it. Unless you finish, you can never truly, heartbreakingly fail.It was less about a particular project being worthy than about me being worthy.
I managed to quickly get an agent who, as soon as she signed me, henceforward ceased almost all contact. After a year I fired the agent, sure that now I would land the right advocate for the book I had poured my twenties into. Except I didn’t. Over the next two years I revised and gradually cut over 250 pages, and I extracted over two dozen requests from agents for different versions of the manuscript, but every single one passed. The banality of my situation was gutting: I was entirely unexceptional in my failure, just one more would-be novelist with a subpar book. This contradicted the narrative I’d been telling myself for so long, which revealed itself as yet another fiction I had failed to compellingly manifest.
Had I wasted years of my life on a delusion? Even though I always told myself that the process was why I wrote, not the end result, now I ran chin-first into the truth: I felt all my work would be meaningless without publication in the manner I had envisioned. Fiction is created in the limitless womb of the mind, but the idea of it remaining there made me feel like a child trapped in his fanciful imagination.
In an unexpected turn of writerly fate, as my novel went about its whistle-stop tour of agent rejections, I landed in the field of collaborative writing. In my case, sometimes this has meant ghostwriting and other times editorial coaching, but more often than not something in between. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at it. For my first outing in this new field I wrote a proposal for a scientist that sold in a major deal, then wrote the book with him. I would end up writing another book with another scientist, then another, and another.
Somewhere along the way, after the last rejections were tapering off and it seemed I would have to do another revision of my novel, if in fact I had it in me, I collapsed in tears on the bed. My wife comforted me; she’d been through this once before with me back when I threw out my MFA thesis to reboot my novel. This time, though, was different. It was less about a particular project being worthy than about me being worthy. All I had ever wanted was to write my own book, and while I had found a writing career that paid the bills, it was akin to the inverse of my dreams: I was succeeding at writing other people’s books instead of my own.
Was this a literary life? In today’s writing world, maybe, and I was grateful to be making a living. But it wasn’t the one I wanted. I had given myself so completely to my identity as a novelist that I had little else to prop my sense of self up when that identify short-circuited. My future as a writer felt like a bleak blank page. Then, in the spring of my 33rd year—my Jesus Year, during which, in lieu of messianic ambitions, I hoped to resurrect my dreams of publishing a book—I got an idea.
It was 2015 and three years earlier I had written an essay for The Believer about a Spanish cult documentary released in 1976 called El Desencanto (The Disenchantment). It was about an eccentric, tormented family of writers, the Paneros. The father, Leopoldo Panero, had been celebrated as a poet by the Franco regime. His wife, Felicidad Blanc, had seen her own writerly dreams crushed by her subjugation as her husband’s muse. Their three sons—Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi—had all grown up to be writers themselves, each obsessed with his family’s literary legacy and place inside it.
The film was made over a decade after Leopoldo Panero’s death and came out the year following Franco’s death when Spain was in the midst of a precarious transition to democracy. On camera the three Panero boys and their mother used their recollections to tear down the façade of their family, and in doing so deconstructed the sacred institution of family as a whole in Spain. The documentary turned the strange Paneros into national legends.The thing you love most might not be what you’re best at. And not realizing this can damage you.
I had become obsessed with Panero family, perhaps most of all because they were so obsessed with living literarily, seeming to value literature more than life, or believing that all experiences must spring from art, rather than the reverse. Everything they did and said they framed inside of literature, from the way they explained themselves—invoking Borges, Hemingway, and Artaud, for example—to the way they explained their family, as a novelistic saga of decline. If I had taken literature a little too literally in thinking all I needed to have a fulfilled, meaningful life was to be a writer and publish novels like my heroes, the Paneros had outpaced me by leagues in this regard. I saw shades of myself in them.
Now that I was schooled a bit in the realm of non-fiction publishing thanks to my collaborative writing, it occurred to me that I could write a biographical history of the family. It wasn’t my novel, and I had never thought of myself as a non-fiction writer (though I did enjoy doing occasional magazine pieces), but I had remained passionately interested in the family since writing the essay about them. Why not give it a try, I thought. I spent six weeks in Spain doing archival research and conducting interviews, and got to work.
Writing the proposal for a book about the Paneros was the most I had enjoyed myself on the page since completing the first draft my 600-page novel. Early each morning I sat down at my desk for an hour or two before turning to the collaborative book I was on contract for, and the chapter summaries came out as if already written. When I queried agents in the fall, I had several to choose from, and two months later I had found the perfect editor and publishing house.
This unexpected arc I traveled to from “failure” to “success” may come off as obnoxious. I’m not trying to humblebrag by cutting myself down only to build myself back up again. Or my story might read like a preface to feel-good platitudes about persistence that I will now spray you with. Yes, I kept at it, refused to give up on crafting a literary life, spent a joyously intense three years writing my book about the Paneros, and now a book with my name on it is finally out in the world. But that’s not where my thoughts land when I retread all of this ground from my history of trying to turn writing into a writing life. The insight I took away from these experiences still frightens me, and that insight is: The thing you love most might not be what you’re best at. And not realizing this can damage you.
I loved fiction like it was a person and failing at my novel was like getting my heart broken. Maybe I failed because I chose the wrong story to tell, or committed to a structure that I didn’t have the chops to pull off, or needed to mature more emotionally before knowing how to fill in my characters’ inner lives. Surely these factors played a role, but I suspect the real reason is that I simply wasn’t the writer I dreamed of being and I was so willfully blind to this fact that I nearly torpedoed the thing I wanted most: a literary life. Just because fiction made me fall in love with books didn’t mean my life in books would involve fiction. And just because I had the willpower and passion to devote myself so fully to finishing my novel didn’t mean that those occasional magazine pieces didn’t come out better than my fiction. My single-minded focus on my novel had in fact been small-mindedness. And the fact that I could fail to know myself for something so crucial to making the best of my years on Earth surpasses any artistic defect. It’s a personal failure. An innocent, forgivable one, but also a magnificent defeat.
But okay, fine, a little uplift does sneak in here at the end. I’ve come to love writing non-fiction and enjoy it more than I ever enjoyed writing fiction. It allows me to take my Panero-like desire to view life as it were literature, but I apply this to the telling and shaping of already existing stories, rather than ones I make up. My literary life now consists in finding the literature in real life, which forces me to be out in the world listening to others and chasing documents. Doing so makes me happy, as does reading non-fiction, which is all I seem to hunger for these days. Yet every time I do read a novel, I feel an ache to return to fiction.
For now, however, I’m just too scared. There’s a painfully compelling narrative in my head that’s a kind of negative image of the one the younger pathological optimist used to tell me. It says that I shouldn’t bother trying my hand at a novel again, that my strengths end with non-fiction and my weaknesses begin with fiction. I know it’s probably not that simple, and also that I learned so much from writing about the Paneros that I might be equal to the task of fiction this time around. But after risking so much once, I’m afraid of doing so again. I learned that my life wasn’t like a novel I could shape. It was purely non-fiction, which means I have to adapt to what I got instead of creating whole cloth. And yet . . . I recently printed out the last draft of my novel and plan to soon reread it after having not looked at it for over three years. Maybe I’ll revise it again. Maybe I won’t. And hopefully I won’t feel the years working on it were wasted.