You Can Only Live Inside One Fake World At a Time

In 2006, during my senior year of college, I began writing a novel called Tomorrow is Friday. The plot centered around a disgruntled college mailroom clerk, Jesus Malloy, who had taken a school bus full of children hostage and was buying time to write the story of how he had gotten himself into the situation. The mailroom I described (and the people in it) was the mailroom I worked in. Jesus was defined by the tics and the habits of one of my coworkers. The school bus was one of the many school buses that disrupted our delivering the campus mail to the local post office. The school the bus had left from was the school the real disruptive buses dropped-off and picked-up from.

As I wrote Tomorrow is Friday, I was concerned by the strip-mining of my life in service of my material. I wondered if this would be frowned upon in the Creation Game. I also recognized how untenable of an approach it was to creative writing. All of my fears coalesced into a bigger, pulsing, at times all-encompassing thought: this is the only novel I will ever be able to write. I have no other ideas.

I didn’t know how to write well enough at the time to finish Tomorrow is Friday. The two hundred or so pages that I wrote were abandoned.  They sit dormant now, amateurish and unusable.

In 2008, during my final year of graduate school, I started my next novel, Whitney. It centered around a lot of the themes and emotions in my life at the time—the transition into adulthood, the desire to make peace with the hometown that I had outgrown and left, and the effort to understand what it takes to be a serious, committed relationship. During the long, arduous process of completing it (the novel, not the relationship), frustrated by the stop and go pace at which I proceeded, I would often be overcome by a feeling I remembered from my past: this is it. I have no new ideas. I will never have a new idea. This will be my final novel.

At the time, this feeling was particularly damaging for two reasons:

1. Because of it, as I wrote, I would be tempted to save good ideas. Rather than pour everything I had into the project at hand, I would rationalize that if a new idea, a good idea—maybe even a great idea—didn’t obviously fit into Whitney, I shouldn’t waste it. As I saw it, Whitney (which at the time, unbeknownst to me, was still a couple of years away from completion), was a project that, save for a few chapters here and there, was mostly done and breathing on its own in its own contained world. I needed to start prepping for the next thing, and the next thing, and the next.

2. I felt like a fraud. I’d tossed away the plan I had for my post-college future (Sociology PhD) to chase what I knew I loved (and still love) to do. Pursuing a career as a writer was the first goal someone had suggested that made my heart skip a beat when I considered it as a life option. But now, here I was, in a fairly prestigious creative writing program. I was reading the books, doing the writing, drinking the booze, and smoking the cigarettes (I already wrote about how that train wound up derailing). At 24, I felt as if I were a hologram of a writer, already coasting on fumes, unpublished, and facing the abyss.

Recently, in the middle of working on the second draft of what is now the third novel I’ve started, I found myself in a familiar place. I was struck by a sense of dread in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a world of my own creation—unable to see the end—but sure that one existed. I stopped writing, completely aware of what now felt like an undeniable truth: I don’t know what I’m going to write about next. After this one, I will have reached my end. I am a sponge wrung dry.

But this time, in the moments after, something felt—different.

Instead of collapsing into a mental heap as usual (the downside of an increased sensitivity to interesting details and good speech tics), I put down my pen and told myself not to fight a two-front war. I told myself that I shouldn’t (and couldn’t) try to conquer the next fake world until I was finished traipsing around in my current fake one.

Heart-on-sleeve, it’s taken me almost thirty years to get comfortable inhabiting this world. Having spent the past decade simultaneously trying to create fake worlds (maybe that’s my issue?), I’ve finally learned that you can only live inside one fake world at a time. To attempt otherwise is to invite in the ghosts of your literary past—the creeping self doubt, the miasma of failure, the spreadsheets that tally up far more failures than successes. Good writing is more about what you leave out than about what you put in. The accompanying lifestyle is no different—a writer’s success is determined more by their response to what they don’t achieve than to what they do.

I should point out that this realization, and the ability to stop and reconsider the mental self-immolation you’re about to embark on, didn’t come easy. I should also point out that it doesn’t always work. And when I told my wife about this latest come-to-Jesus moment, I heard the words coming out of my mouth and realized that this was yet another time in my life when I was essentially looking for praise for successfully living life like a normal person. But the steps you take to reclaim your life from the perils of simply doing what your brain tells you comes naturally (whether that natural reaction is proper or not) is the hard work of being a person. As a man just trying to raise my batting average as a father and as a husband and as a writer, I understand that it’s a grind that I cannot give up on. 

Tomorrow is Friday will most likely rest in Word Doc purgatory forever. Invaluable practice, I call it. Whitney, my debut novel, the first novel I seriously attempted to write, is now available for purchase. My next novel, tentatively titled Lion in a Coma, is a rich, fertile landscape. It is, without a doubt, the best and most complete thing I have ever written. I think about it all the time, even if it is in a holding pattern for the moment (a holding pattern that there is an end in sight to, but more on that later).

After that, I don’t know what comes next. And for the moment, the best thing that I can do for myself, and for my family, and for my career, is be perfectly okay with that.