There’s a very common occupational hazard that affects writers, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it: the desire to write outside your main field.
I know a journalist who took a sabbatical to write a novel, which turned into a short story. I know a science writer who is writing a play. I know a novelist who is writing a memoir.
This change can be exhilarating and fun, because it’s a new creative challenge—and that contributes to a happy life.
It can also be a bit of a pain, because these projects can feel…oppressive. With writing, often, there’s a strange feeling of compulsion. You just have to write about something. I remember hearing Kathryn Harrison remark on a panel, when asked how she chose her topics, “You really have surprisingly little control about what you want to write about.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had to write a book about power, money, fame and sex—when I was clerking for Justice O’Connor, I was writing that book on the weekends. A few years later, I felt I couldn’t go another day without working on a biography of Churchill.
Of course, you can choose what you write about. You just can’t choose what you want to write about.
For the last few years, for example, I’ve been desperately fighting the urge to write a book about St. Therese of Lisieux. I have a lot to say, and I think most of her biographers seriously mis-read her writing, and I’d love to set everyone straight. But I resist because I’m not Catholic, I have no doctrinal expertise, I don’t even speak French! No one would read my book—but how I would love to lay roses at the feet of my spiritual master, St. Therese.
Although I write non-fiction, three times in my life, I’ve had an uncontrollable urge to write a novel. My problem is that I’m not much of a storyteller, and these were “novels of ideas.” Which, I know quite well, is not a good way to write a novel. One novel was about the apocalypse, one was about why people destroy their own possessions (I later wrote a non-fiction book, Profane Waste, on this subject, in collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, and it worked much better in that form), and most recently, I wrote a novel-in-a-month about the happiness consequences of two people having an affair. (I describe this experience in The Happiness Project book.)
One of the reason I love Chris Baty’s novel-in-a-month approach is that for a writer, it can be a gigantic distraction, and therefore a work liability, to have these projects press on you. They get in the way of the work you really need to get done. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s satisfying, yes, but writers, like everyone, need to be productive in the work for which they’re paid.
This has happened to me, yet again. I have this idea for a novel—but for once, in a nice change, it’s not a novel of ideas. Well, it is a little bit. But it has more plot than usual. And it actually has some real characters in it. It’s also a young-adult novel, which I’ve never tackled before, although I’m a huge fan of children’s and young-adult literature.
But what’s the point of view? I imagine it like a movie, distant third-person narrator, but I need to locate it in my main character’s point of view…but then how to handle the gradual reveal of the secrets I want to emerge slowly?
And how do you kill someone without killing him? I need one of my likable main characters to kill another of my characters, but not really kill him. Any ideas? For example, in Harry Potter, one character dies but doesn’t really die; another character is killed, but isn’t really killed, because he was already mortally injured. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” He gets killed, but not really killed. I think I need to re-read Plutarch’s Lives and Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations…maybe there are some ideas there. (Speaking of Polti, has anyone ever updated his scheme, to provide more modern titles to illustrate his thirty-six situations?)
I can’t say describe the plot, because it would sound utterly ridiculous, as is always true of fantasy novels. Let’s just say there are no dragons, but there could be dragons. People have super-powers. It has a lot to do with honor and vows, and it would let me write about “symbols beyond words,” one of my untapped major interests. Tree. Horse. Blood.
But I really don’t have time to be fussing with this right now!
I mentioned this dilemma to a friend while we were waiting in line to see New Moon on Friday night (yes, I went the first day, I love the Twilight saga). She’s an editor and a YA writer herself, and she said, “You should just write it! That’s the happiness project thing to do!”
She’s absolutely right. It would make me very happy to write that novel, and I could again follow the scheme in No Plot! No Problem to get it done. But while it would be fun, it would also be draining and difficult and distracting. Plus, I would really try to make it good, but it probably wouldn’t end up being good—and if I go to the trouble to write a book, I really want it to be good. It would be “play,” in that I’d be doing it for fun, but it would use up precisely the same energy that I use for “work.” More time at the keyboard, can I stand it? Of course, it might energize me as well.
Two additional factors loom in the background: first, I’m extraordinarily lucky to be a working writer, debating whether to do this extra project for fun. I never forget that. Second, the writing world as we know it is collapsing. I’m not sure how to factor that fact in.
So what to do? I can’t see past the publication date for The Happiness Project, looming so close and yet so far on December 29, so I think I’ll hold on to my idea, try to come up with a way to kill my character without killing him, and promise myself that I’ll make a start on this novel this summer, if I still feel the urge.
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