I drew this little cartoon over the summer, having lifted the quote perhaps from some self-help book I was half-reading at the time. Maybe I’d overheard the phrase. Who knows? Who cares? Look, I grew up in a high-pressure high-school environment, at one of the best public schools in the country, an environment that doesn’t typically excuse low ambition or grades under A-. In that pressure cooker, you’re building the steam yourself, not to mention what your teachers and peers do to you. Talented and Gifted Magnet–yep, that’s the school’s real name–was good to me in many ways, not least of which in the quality of friends I found there, but holy Jesus it fucked me up in terms of self-expectations and forgiveness of my very real, very large, sometimes overwhelming flaws and limitations. For much of my adult life, anything short of perfection–in work, creative endeavors, love (which is both work and a creative endeavor), volunteering, in my relationship with God–was unacceptable. Well, the adult pains of everyday disappointment, the disastrous administration of Bush the Younger, a divorce, and a large number of rejection letters from journals and publishers are beating all that out of me. Good. I’d prefer not to be beaten to learn my lessons but sometimes that’s the only way the lesson sticks. (Note to flamers: This is not an endorsement or excuse-making for domestic abuse of any sort. Calm the fuck down.) One lesson that’s gradually sunk in is the above: “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” If you want to create anything worthwhile in life, there will be a lot of stutter-steps, banana-peel pratfalls, and painful embarrassments. If I only accept perfection in my moral, spiritual, and creative lives, I’ll never get started on anything, because I’m thoroughly incapable of perfection. Where’s this leading, Walter? Okay. Last month, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, something I was introduced to by an ex-girlfriend who encouraged me to give it a try. I’d done something similar with my 24-hour comic, back in November (again!) 2000. That being said, the idea of prancing forward from start to finish on a novel terrified me. At that onrushing speed, there’s no way it could be good, right? And I really hated all the hippie declarations of novel-writing as therapy, as an avenue of “finding yourself,” on the website. Still, it tugged at me. I had been in a rut, writing-wise, unable to commit myself regularly to the practice because I expected perfection of myself. At the very least, #NaNoWriMo would encourage self-discipline–a big principle of TAG Magnet–and the flexing of the writing muscle. That writing muscle’s like any other–you don’t use it, and it turns to flab, and that makes it that much harder to get it back into shape. I set a personal goal of 30,000 words for November 2013, and made some notes for a novella on a community swimming pool open only late at night, in my new hometown of Athens, GA. On November 1, I got to work, beginning with the 3000 words I had made in handwritten notes. 3000 words, y’all, didn’t get me as far as I thought it would. Instead of a full revving up, those notepad jots just got me down the neighborhood block. Sitting down at the laptop every night after work was brutal. Of course it was; why’d I expect otherwise? It was also glorious, and lots of fun, and deeply erotic, too. Yes, writing about sex–rather a lot of it, fulfilled and interrupted, for a 32,000-word novella–means turning myself on, too. More than that, though, the sheer crush of daily writing means that I opened myself to surprises, too. The novella went places I didn’t expect. There’s more dialogue than I expected. There’s a lot about porn, telepathic cats, the (meta)physics of swimming, the ways in which people read each other (or fail to do so), progressive Christianity, Yo La Tengo, and addiction in this book, none of which I expected to make its way into my writing. Now, to be fair, I’m written two (deservedly unpublished) novels before, along with a slew of stories, poems, and essays, so I’m not new to this, exactly. Still, this marks the first time in a decade that I felt I was giving so much of myself, in such unexpected and scary ways, to my writing. (A significant exception is a 2011 short story, “Done with Skateboarding,” which is probably the single best, most mature piece of fiction I’ve written.) #NaNoWriMo broke me, and that’s good. Knowing that I had to meet a 1000-word count each day meant that I couldn’t worry about if each one of those words was perfect. That’s not to say I didn’t put down some pretty good ones but I also put down a lot of crap, a lot of half-formed thoughts that I ended up keeping because life and love are full of ideas that aren’t fully articulated nor considered. Those wavering thoughts ended up as cores of my narrative, as jumping-off points for weird digressions. In this, I turned to César Aira, Jim Harrison, and Nicholson Baker, who dare to write novellas at all, and above all dare to be oddball and inconclusive in their work. Tonight, I finished “Rare Breeds,” with a joke that evokes Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, though (let’s be fair) I had written the ending two weeks ago, and spent the rest of the month working to that endpoint. The manuscript is good, which is to say that it’s done, and totally weird, and very much autobiographical though there’s very little of my actual life in it, and it feels like I–as opposed to a writer I was aping–wrote the thing. Now, I’ll sit on it for a month, not reading a single sentence. It’ll gestate until January 2014, at which point I’ll look inside the womb and see what’s what. Wish me luck.
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