Man is the Little World Creator. Or, How to Enjoy Cosmic Self-Torment.

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Scottish Gin. Author image.

I pounded out two chapters of the manuscript editing yesterday despite not particularly liking any of it. I’m halfway through, having picked up considerable speed these past couple of weeks after finally leaving behind the work of adding what amounted to perhaps one-hundred additional pages to the story. Raw creativity is not editorial creativity. They are similar only in the sense that whenever we write, we are self-editing to a certain degree. Otherwise, it’s a different part of one’s brain.

Meanwhile, in the name of progress, namely, in the name of getting to the fucking end of the third draft, I let a handful of glitchy things go – a redundancy here, an inconsistency there. With the idea of getting to them later, in the next draft, or the next, ugh. Let’s face it, one and done is a great concept in concept only. That is, if any writer has the luxury, the nerve or, in the rarest case, the talent to crank out the first draft of a novel and summarily hand it over to an editor to fix it, or simply self-publishes it as-is, sans any self-editing, then I’ll eat my hat.

Why it is that manuscripts (and I assume it holds as true for non-fiction as fiction) arrive so utterly malformed and furthermore require round after round of washing, rinsing, ironing and folding? It’s like having a baby: human children are so fantastically unready for life, so lacking in any ability to care for themselves. Subsequent years of dependency become, as with children and their parents, the source of infinite frustration and disappointment for the writer. Editing, like parenting, singlehandedly wrecks any semblance of romance that accompanied the original idea.

That said, “I want to write book” isn’t even something I ever said to myself; it’s not an idea I ever had in my life, even while I was in the midst of writing my first one. TC1, that is to say, just happened or, more accurately, the process of creating it just kept happening. Line after line, paragraph after paragraph, all horrible and hackneyed, page after page and ultimately year after year, the manuscript kept becoming a novel and then, eventually and surprisingly – it still surprises me – an indie published one.

What gives? What goes on? Why is it the way it is to write and publish a book? For they are two different things. The publishing part – my experience being of course indie publishing – bestows any number of rewards, from seeing the book cover through to completion, and the interior formatting – making the thing look nice is its own reward – to uploading it to the various platforms and then tweaking the marketing and enthusiastically following the sales, such as they are. But the writing? Which includes the editing? How does one survive the ceaseless adjustment, correction, improvement, rearrangement, deletion, addition, clarification, elaboration, trimming and primping and fortifying and fucking wrestling that is novel birthing? Because it isn’t anything like birthing. Rather, it more resembles the assembly of a Frankenstein monster, replete with the ghoulish and gory unsightliness, the pervasive sense of horror and the lingering stench of death that such a concept implies. Oh, and the cosmic fright.

Wait a minute. Do I really mean to say that writing a novel is horrible? Or horrifying? And ghoulish and frightening? And that it has the stench of death? Yes.

You don’t believe me. You think there must be something good about it, otherwise us idiot authors wouldn’t keep doing it. Okay, yes, let’s see, the attributes, the good things, the pleasantries and rewards of the endeavor, can we list those? Um… well, no.

C’mon, you say, seeing your name in print and on the cover of the book, that must be a fantastic feeling, a real sense of accomplishment and success and worthiness. Isn’t it? Nope. Firstly, as anyone who employs a pen name will tell you, you’re never going to see your given name in print unless some reviewer digs it up and then you’re just as likely to find yourself being torn to shreds in public for being a hack. So, no, the your-name-on-the-cover thing is a no-go. And I dare say that for those authors not using a pen name, we can assume that you have nevertheless poured so much blood, sweat and tears into the book and struggled so mightily to see it through to its miserable publication result that it now so much does not resemble what you started with – you know, the thing, the wild dream of it, that had you all excited in the very beginning? – that, well, ho hum, there it is, a book. My book, yes. Sort of.

This is to say nothing of the final punishment, for many if not all of us, of never being capable of stomaching, let alone reading even a page, nay, a mere paragraph of the text ever again short of being under the threat of death. Please, read us a passage from your novel. Oh my god, no…!

If writing and indie publishing a novel, then, is so fucking awful, at least as I describe it, then why do it? Just quit. End the misery. Move on to something else.

This brings us to the painful pivot point: people who write novels can’t help it. They can’t help themselves. The novels can be said to have possessed them and the novels go about writing themselves. Except it’s not as if the novel, writing itself, does a good job of it. No. The weirdly raw and unformed intimation of a story with a proper beginning, middle, end and requisite disaster is just that. Weirdly raw and unformed. Malformed might be a better word. “A fucked-up mess” covers it pretty well.

Hundreds of pages and many months, perhaps years, down the road, there you are authoring this thing and you find yourself decrying its utter lack of compelling plot, its conflicting this and that, its yawn-inducing dialogue, plot quirks and character cliches, characters whom, by the way, have all somehow managed to sound either exactly like each other or like nobody on Earth or any other planet ever realistically, let alone compellingly, ever could. Perhaps the problem is that you’ve been, as they say, telling and not showing? Or, wait, is it the other way around? Because at this point, having endured the ceaseless swirling around inside your head of the story, whatever has become of it, to say nothing of the rereading of your words that never seem like anything a real writer would ever puke out, everything about the so-called manuscript has long since lost all meaning, let alone interest, let alone clarity and purpose and the whole thing has officially entered the realm of “hackneyed prose” and “non-story.”

We writers ask ourselves, Who would fucking read it? What in hell am I going on about? What happened to the plot? Who are these characters and why are they here? What are they supposed to be doing? What’s the point? Ugh.

Anything can seem like a failure in the middle. These are words of wisdom I read somewhere long ago. And now, I’m living them.

What to do? Quit? You can’t quit. Not because you wouldn’t rather quit. It’s rather because your manuscript, which may or may not still resemble a novel, will never allow you to quit. Like I said, it writes itself. It’s as if the novel is Moby Dick and you are Captain Ahab. The novel is the great whale doing its thing, swimming the oceans of the world, indifferent to the rotting corpse of the captain roped round the neck at the other end of that pesky harpoon. Perhaps, someday, you may be free of each other. Perhaps not. But the only stopping that will ever happen is death. Of you or it.

Is it really that bad, buddy? Hey, when it’s your work, your honest-to-Ahab life’s work, your personal mythology and all that, to write a novel or a series of novels then it just is. It is as bad and as good as it gets. Bliss, as we are compelled to recall, is not happiness; rather, it is fulfillment. Whatever that means, right? This is our predicament. Shared by the gods.

The involvement of the gods in the web of their own creation, so that they become, like Abu Kasem, the harried victims of their creatures, entangled in nets of not quite voluntary self-manifestation, and then mocked by the knowing laughter of their own externally reflected inner judge: this is the miracle of the universe. This is the tragicomic romance of the world. The gods, the fairy powers, are always in danger of self-enchantment. Like the self-hoarding merchant of the Bagdad bazaars, like the youth Narcissus, they become fixed to their own reflected images – momentarily reluctant to pass with the passing of time, and critically in need of the shocking, shattering blow of the redemptive catastrophe. Man is the little world creator; God, the great. Each, surrounded by the figments of his own mirrored depths, knows and suffers the cosmic self-torment.

Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, Joseph Campbell, ed., (New York: Pantheon Books on behalf of Bollingen Foundation, 1948), 239.

Man is the little world creator. Indeed. A novel being merely one example. And this novel, TC2, like the last one, will get done. To the best of my ability. Or I’ll die trying. And the world will be the judge. That’s the way it is with novels. I think it was Campbell himself, a great writer of outstanding non-fiction, who suggested that when it comes to books, it’s all about getting it off your chest. Right on. And, write on….