So a few weeks ago, tired of staring at the blighted pages of the current draft of my novel, I hit upon the idea of revisiting a book I read in my pre-MFA days. The book is Writing the Breakout Novel, and has been around for over a decade. I recalled its focus being on revision and deepening of the story and thought it couldn’t hurt to take a look. And it didn’t hurt. In fact, it helped me refocus some of my thinking.
It turns out that an MFA program works on one in strange ways. Certain things that I read over pre-MFA without fully registering now stand out in sharp relief. To wit: agent Donald Maas’s view of what constitutes literary fiction (e.g., Memoirs of a Geisha), and, more troubling, his open scorn for the ineffability of the artistic process, which he seems to view as a humorous character flaw in the writer’s personality. Representative quote:
Listen to authors try to explain their breakout novels, and it usually sounds something like this: “One day I was fascinated by a drop of bright red blood on a pure white rose, and I just started writing. The next thing I knew, I had four hundred pages. I had no idea that it would be so popular! Heck, I just wrote what I felt.” Helpful, isn’t it? If we are to believe those self-effacing storytellers, a breakout novel is nothing more than the end product of an inspired idea, a story that writes itself.
Ugh. This is either a poor attempt at humor, or the writers Maas hangs out with are assholes. I think that most serious writers (including the writers of genre fiction he reps) will cop to the work being hard and often thankless, even if its point of inspiration sparked an initial flow of material that came out with relative ease.
What the book really revealed to me though is how much I’ve changed over the course of the MFA. I kept wondering why the advice and perspective and examples in the book did not resonate with me, why the premise of the book seemed odd to me somehow, and finally I realized: I do not want to write the breakout novel. I am fundamentally not interested in “breaking out.” This does not mean I don’t want to get my work out there and be read. It just means that material success through fiction is not something I view as desirable or attainable.
I’m not writing to “break out.” I’m writing because I kind of have to. See also this Rilke quote I encountered today on The Hairpin’s Ask a Humanities Grad Student column:
Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge it to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.