On the first week of camp, I always try to tell the kids that it’s natural to believe you’re a fraud. “Generally people get here and they’re nervous. Sure, you know that quantitatively, you did incredibly well on the ACT, especially for a seventh grader – that’s why you were allowed to come to TIP – but you can’t shake the feeling that it’s all false. Somehow, you think, you tricked the test into letting you through, fooled the interviewers, lied to your parents. The truth is, you’re not as smart as anyone else, and sooner or later everyone is going to find out.”
At that point, I try to pause dramatically. Then I say, “But the thing is, everyone else feels like that too.”
I mention the Dunning-Kruger effect – namely, that people who are terrible at something tend to overestimate their abilities at it – and tell them they’re encountering imposter syndrome, which is the opposite. (I don’t mention that I originally learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect because my grad school friends and I were at a party and less-than-soberly decided to Google ourselves; Kruger happened to be the notorious host’s last name; that Wikipedia page popped up, and our lives have never been the same.) I tell them that this is normal and natural; that thinking you’re tricking others into believing you’re good at something is, in fact, a sign you’re actually good at it. Then I say, “It doesn’t go away, unfortunately.”
Because it doesn’t.
I’ve been hacking away at this novel for two years. If someone else said that to me, I would imagine them diligently sitting at their computer for hours on end each day, their fingers making typey-typey noises, concentration furrowed on their face. (Dini, basically.) I would be impressed, and ask a lot of questions about when exactly I could see it in print. Two years sounds like a lot of time, right? Especially if you’re so diligent about it?
But oh, I have not been diligent. I say I’m a novelist, but I definitely feel like a liar when I do, because being a novelist is nothing like what I pictured. Here, so far, is my artistic process:
1. Receive a copy of “No Plot? No Problem!” from your excellent mentor. Say to yourself, “This book was written by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, a software engineer who decided, one day, that he would write a book. And he did: by writing a thousand words a day, he had, in a month, produced a novel. It was that simple. Granted, it probably wasn’t a very good novel, but he had done one, and sooner or later he made a career out of convincing other people to spend a month binge-writing, and if all those other people can churn out words, why can’t you? It’s only a month, Hennen.”
2. Move to Germany. Get a kind of boring job. While at the Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, a beautiful if draconian library that requires you to go through a metal detector and carry all your possessions in a little plastic bag, begin writing a random scene about a mysterious school bus driver. The next day, at your boring job, continue the scene, then start another, all the while saying to yourself, “Look at how very productive I’m being.”
3. Begin to become intrigued by the story. Despite that, don’t actually write 1000 words a day. Just, you know, sort of close to it.
4. In four months, have a hundred pages but no ending.
5. Get stymied.
6. For a year, write other things.
7. Somehow get into grad school. Attend grad school. While at grad school, keep making flippant references to your novel. “Yeah, I have a novel, but it’s a pile of crap. I mean, it’s melodramatic and stupid. There’s an old lady who speaks entirely in lisping dialect, for god’s sake.”
8. Sign up for Ethan Canin’s “Writing the Long Story” class. Realize in mid-March that you are up for workshop and you have no long story to turn in. Spend feverish hours rewriting plot of novel into 40-page long story that sounds like Serious Literature and has no silly old ladies in it.
9. Have everyone in your workshop say things like, “This seems like more of a novel, really.”
10. Return to original draft. Realize you like it more than you thought you did. Though it’s folksy in parts, there is a weird energy to it – you were writing not for your workshop or for Papa Bear’s vengeful eyes, but for yourself, for the sheer sake of Having Written a Novel. Parts of it are weird, sure, but on the whole…
11. Hedge-trim. Edit. Bushwhack. Finally you have 50 pages you kind of like.
12. Have Dini read the whole thing and be encouraging.
13. Show the fifty pages to the nice woman you picked up from the Iowa City airport. Unlike some other agents, she does not tsk her tongue and say that, well, school bus crash novels don’t really sell. Instead, two months later, she writes you an encouraging email. She sends you a contract. She wants to see the rest of it when it’s done.
14. Graduate. Panic.
15. How… What are you supposed to do with two-hundred-odd pages of the same scenes, written again and again in various lousy forms? With a Scrivener program you only sort of use? With a whole plot, but nowhere to jam in all the new scenes you now realize you have to write? You mention your novel to the class, and they ask you when they’re going to see it, imagining, you suppose, that they’ll go home from camp and there it’ll be on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. You don’t blame them. You imagine this too, a lot. You think seriously about cover design, and say things like, “Well, I hope they don’t put a flower on it, for God’s sake. Or cover it in curly pink script.” All the while the pages wait, tapping their foot.
16. Have a revelation: this process seems insane, but it is a process. This is, after all, how you write short stories. You do one lousy draft, then another draft that is lousy in a different way, and then you spend six months covering journals in various notes. You don’t look at the notes. Instead, when you are ready, you sit down and open up a brand new document, and you write large swathes in one go, and then maybe Marilynne Robinson doesn’t hate it.
17. Become hopeful. Take notes.
18. Take even more notes, some of which turn into longer, stranger, blossoming scenes. Become dangerously close to opening up the brand new document.
19. (tentative) Learn to be – if not one of those people who writes for three hours every morning, rain or shine – at least one of those people who is not afraid of what she has already produced. Instead, write big, write mean, and remind yourself that you’ll take out the cliches in the next draft. Figure something out about the character that deeply excites you. Stay in. Wake up early. Go live on a farm. Don’t think too much about cover design: just write because this story’s been hanging out on a hard drive for two years, and likely it’ll haunt you vengefully if it doesn’t make its way onto paper. It’s not dead, but it does have unfinished business.
Probably there is something dangerous about admitting all this on the Internet, but still: if I put it on my blog, there’s no way I won’t happen to look at it once in a while. If you’ve made it this far, though, you probably know more about me than I do by now.