It's summer time. Nearly every night my husband tunes in to watch a baseball game. And when he has the chance he goes in person, sometimes with me tagging along, to watch baseball. Since we are St. Louis Cardinal fans, if our team makes it into the play-off games we watch every night, and try to snag tickets to at least a game or two to root them on in person. The roar in Busch Stadium for a St. Louis home team in a play off or World Series game is like no other sound I've heard. Some of my incipient deafness no doubt the result.
There are no stadiums filled with cheering fans for novelists. Nevertheless, instead of watching baseball last week and this week, along with nine other aspiring novelists, I'm at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival taking a two week course in novel writing. Our teacher, Amber Dermont, has published to critical acclaim "The Starboard Sea" and, more recently, a collection of short stories: "Damage Control: Stories".
Yesterday Amber suggested considering sports as a metaphor in our writing efforts: for the story arc, the good or bad loser, the good or bad winner. No doubt in many life activities there is much to learn from sports, including when writing a novel.
Per the class instructions, my classmates and I came to the workshop with manuscripts of between 30,000 and 75,000 words. In some cases, even more than 75,000 words. The writers have worked on their novels for anywhere from a few months to a few decades. The novels are strikingly different in topic and tone.
Several of my classmates have remarked they are reluctant to tell friends, and even close family members, how much time and effort they have spent on their manuscript. How do you explain you spent months, or even years, working on a novel? Particularly considering that in today's publishing world, what are the chances a first novel by an unknown will be published? I can tell you: very slim. Unless, of course, we go the route of self-publication, which has become much easier now that electronic publishing is readily available.
I doubt that our teacher or even John Updike have ever been cheered by a stadium-sized crowd, at least for their writing. So why do people struggle to write novels? Certainly writing a novel is a struggle. Why does anyone write, for hours, days, months and years, alone in a room? Why do we devote weeks of our time, travel thousands of miles, and spend thousands of dollars to attend a class? All in the hopes of perfecting our game? A very good question.
This morning I read the New York Times article, "In a .338 Lifetime Average, Every Day Counted", http://ms/T2FOy1, about Tony Gwynn, who died of cancer on Monday at the age of 54. Tony was known for his positive attitude towards the game of baseball. He loved the game and tried every day to perfect his craft. Like Tony approached baseball, we writers who not only love the written word, but love novels, are here trying to perfect our craft.
It's one thing to love to read novels. You may even be able to tell good novels from bad. And good writing from bad writing. But being able to produce a good novel is something else entirely. I suggest it's a bit of a mystery why some novels work and others do not.
Writing is essentially a solitary occupation. One usually sits by oneself in a room with a computer, or a pad of paper and tries to put coherent thoughts together into words, sentences and paragraphs. A little like Tony Gwynn spending countless hours watching game videos to try to become a better hitter. A would-be novelist could devote years of his or her life to work on a piece of fiction and not receive any validation as to whether the novel he or she is writing is of any merit. Let alone know whether the manuscript is publishable.
What's remarkable about a writing workshop is that each of the students, who have been laboring alone, then gets to not only hear feedback and suggestions. But also we would-be writers get to socialize with our own tribe of writers. And hope that our teacher who has conjured some of the magic of novel writing in her own life, can help us discover our own magic for writing a novel.