How Not To Write Your First Novel
The nearest I've ever come to losing my mind was in the fall of 1991 in a small town in Maine called Ellsworth.
I was 22, just out of college. I'd spent the summer after graduation in Boston working on a travel guide to Mexico, but I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. And not just because I'd never actually been to Mexico (still haven't). What I wanted to do was write novels. I wanted to write them desperately. It was the only thing I could imagine ever wanting to do. So when September arrived, and the travel guide had gone to press, I bought a car — a 1985 Subaru GL, herb green — and set out west to find somewhere to write them.
At that point in my life I had written a handful of short stories, a smaller handful of which had been published in college magazines. Sophomore year one of them even won a campus prize. Second prize, but still: I felt like I was ready to step up to the big canvas. I'd never been west of Chicago, but the West seemed like a place where you could lose yourself and hunker down and get some real work done. My plan was to drive till I got to a suitably small town, a dot on a map somewhere, get a job in some unstrenuous service industry, fall in love with the local lonely librarian, and write my books.
I dropped off an already-ex-girlfriend at her parents' house in Queens, then drove on through the industrial countryside of Pennsylvania as it softened in the first autumn rains. I drove all day, no specific destination in mind; I figured I'd know it when I saw it. I'd never done much long-haul driving before. It was harder than I expected: less romantic, more boring.
I listened to the Clarence Thomas hearings on the radio. I ate alone at roadside diners, reading a copy of Mao II. One evening I stopped on a roadside embankment to pee and a swarm of crickets leapt up at me out of the grass in a solid wall, which caused me to fall over backward mid-pee. At night I would find an empty field, or a dead-end street, or a neglected parking lot, recline the front passenger seat of the Subaru back as far as it would go, and sleep in my car.
But I hadn't counted on the sheer, dispiriting width of the state of Pennsylvania. It took the fight out of me. While superficially high-functioning, I was in fact easily daunted, and instead of driving west I gave up and veered north to Niagara Falls. If I failed to cross the country I could at least check off one major geographical milestone.
The falls were surrounded by an outer corona of honeymoon motels that underscored my growing sense of isolation. I had second thoughts about what I was doing. My friends were getting on with their lives, moving to plausible-sounding places like Seattle and Atlanta, starting sensible jobs and graduate schools and professional schools, and what the hell was I doing out here, all by myself? Did I really think I was some kind of novel-writing genius person? I got out of my Subaru and saw the falls and was duly impressed. Then I got back in and headed back east.
But I couldn't go back to Boston, not yet, not when I'd just lit out for the territories so dramatically, so I angled northeast instead, through Adirondack State Park and the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. It rained harder. I spent another night in the front seat and was awakened by a farmer shooing me out of his field, where I'd parked in the dark. My car wouldn't start, so we walked up to his house together and called a garage. The farmer wasn't interested in my voyage of literary self-discovery. He was a sober and pragmatic man. He had actual important work to do. I felt very young and very callow next to him.
But I kept driving. I was clinging to my dream of glorious literary isolation, and it was dawning on me that I could still save it. I could turn my vision of a dusty town in Idaho into a vision of a snug farmhouse in Maine, thoroughly socked in by a deep silent winter. That was the thing for a writer! Having grown up in Massachusetts I always knew that our winters were a half-hearted, watered-down version of the real thing, the sort of thing they had up north. I thought of The Outermost House by Henry Beston. I'd never actually read it, but the title always evoked for me a powerful sense of contemplative isolation. I was going to get me some of that.
I drove through Portland — which was charming but didn't seem northerly or outermost enough — and stopped just short of Bangor — didn't want to overdo it — which left me in Ellsworth, Maine. I bought a copy of a local paper for the real estate listings. Then I parked on a back road, wrapped myself in my overcoat and got ready to sleep in my car again. A kindly passerby stopped to ask me if I was lost. I told him I knew exactly where I was going.
But I didn't know. I can't overstate how little I knew about myself at 22, or how little I'd thought about what I was doing. When I graduated from college I genuinely believed that the creative life was the apex of human existence, and that to work at an ordinary office job was a betrayal of that life, and I had to pursue that life at all costs. Management consulting, law school, med school, those were fine for other people — I didn't judge! — but I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path.
And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn't need other people. Other people were a distraction. My little chrysalis of genius was going to seat one and one only.
I found an apartment in Ellsworth, a stubby wing of a farmhouse that the owner had turned into a rental unit, miles out of town on a sparsely developed dirt road. It was perfect except for the bathroom, which was only technically indoors by virtue of a couple of thin sheets of plywood, and which provided no more than 60 consecutive seconds of hot water at a time. But great artists had suffered worse. I moved in and unpacked my belongings and set up my Mac Classic and got to work.
It was my first experience of writing full-time, and I could do five or six hours a day, but that still left me with a lot of un-arable time to dispose of, so I took a lot of walks. I explored the area around the farmhouse. I can still see it with cartographic clarity, from above, like the map of the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie-the-Pooh. Turn left on the dirt road and you got to a creepy one-room Pentecostal church with boarded-up windows. Turning right took you over a concrete bridge above a little dammed creek, which I used to toss little sticks into. Beyond the bridge and the creek were the empty but surprisingly well-appointed grounds of a summer camp for disturbed teenagers.
When I didn't walk I drove. I listened to the radio: It was the fall of Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls" and U2's "Mysterious Ways," two perfectly decent songs that through no fault of their own I never ever want to hear again. Back behind a local pharmacy there was a room full of arcade games, and I spent hours in front of an obscure but compelling side-scroller called Heavy Unit in which you piloted a two-dimensional ship armed with lasers and bombs through a hostile and ultimately fatal cavern.
I spent a lot of time at the library too. Though it turned out that none of the librarians were lonely.
But I was lonely. It was the first fall I'd ever spent out of school, and I'd never been that isolated before. There were no cell phones back then. There was no texting, no Facebook, no Twitter, no email. Long-distance calls cost money. The web hadn't even been invented yet. I had to get my pornography in the form of magazines.
You can't be that lonely now, not anymore, but back then loneliness was a totally different animal: It came at you hot and strong, raw and uncut.
I did write a lot that fall, but unfortunately I didn't write very well. I'd spent my undergraduate years worshipping the modernists — Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Hemingway, Woolf. I thought that Mrs. Dalloway was the most perfect novel of the 20th century (I still think that). But when I tried to apply their techniques to the topic of my suburban childhood and adolescence, it was pretty slow going. The modernists are easy to admire and tough to imitate. Their particular brand of literary performance is a high wire act, and if you're not a virtuoso, you're a disaster, and I was not a virtuoso.
I'd also just read Donald Barthelme's Snow White, which seemed to me to be the shape of things to come: a bridge to the novel's glorious postmodern future. But when you're trying to write like Donald Barthelme even being a virtuoso isn't good enough. You have to be Donald Barthelme.
On Friday and Saturday nights there was a 23-and-under club in Bangor, 45 minutes away, and I drove up there a few times, desperate for some human contact. The club was alcohol-free, so before I went in I would chug from a fifth of vodka on the passenger seat. But once I got inside something went wrong. I felt like there was an invisible barrier between me and other people, one that no amount of vodka could dissolve. I had forgotten how to talk to people. I carried around a fair amount of social anxiety already, and all the time I was spending alone had made it much, much worse. So I would stand around like a lump, shoot some pool in a back room, then drive home alone through fields of cold-stunted pines, no less desperate, while Morrissey sang "How Soon Is Now?" on the Subaru's cassette player.
Money was getting to be a problem. By the end of October I was running through my travel-guide cash pretty fast. I looked for jobs, but there wasn't much out there. Ellsworth was heavily dependent on summer tourism, and it emptied out in the fall. I signed up with temp agencies. I applied for a job as a groundskeeper at a golf club, as an editor at a newspaper in Bar Harbor, as a mailman on rural routes. No one hired me. I was starting to feel a little untouchable.
I did meet a girl, eventually. I've forgotten her name — Jessica, I want to say — but she worked at the local bookstore, which actually sold primarily stationery supplies. I'd dropped off a résumé there, and she called the number on it, not to offer me a job but because she and I were practically the only people in our early twenties in the entire area. We went out for drinks a couple of times and I was very, very grateful for her company, but there was no attraction there whatsoever, on either side. She wasn't over her last boyfriend, who'd moved to Los Angeles to play one of the turtles in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
I'm not even sure I understood how lonely I was. I had friends back in the real world, but I never asked anyone to visit me. On some level I still didn't believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.
But by the end of November my sanity was starting to sag under the weight of all that solitude and empty time and creative failure. I wrote less and less and liked less and less of what I wrote. I felt like I couldn't go to bed till I'd accomplished something, anything, but usually that just meant I stayed up till dawn and then collapsed from exhaustion. I had no TV but I would watch any movie Hollywood cared to release: Hook, Bugsy, Cape Fear, Dead Again, Billy Bathgate, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Highlander II: The Quickening. Books and music started to feel unnaturally vivid. I played a Roxette album (it was Joyride) over and over again and analyzed the lyrics hermeneutically. I read Ubik, which did not make my grasp on reality any firmer. There was a supermarket where you could buy old comic books by the bale for almost nothing, and I became deeply absorbed in Captain America's search for the Red Skull (who'd faked his own death, but Cap wasn't buying it).
The weather got colder. The bathroom situation was becoming a problem: showering was a Shackletonian ordeal punctuated by a brief scalding interlude. I couldn't afford to keep the rest of the house properly heated either, so I stayed in bed a lot, drinking Bailey's straight from the bottle. The house began to be plagued by flies that seemed to live in the walls. They were dormant at night, probably because of the cold, but when the sun warmed them up they came buzzing out in hordes, and I spent hours stalking around the apartment swatting them. One night in December, when the temperature went down to 15 below, I took off all my clothes and ran around on the lawn naked just to see what it felt like.
Maine was trying to teach me something, but I was a slow learner. I thought I'd gone to Maine to face my demons and turn them into art, but it turned out that I couldn't face them, and not only that I couldn't even find them. I was trying to write about what I knew, which in itself probably wasn't a bad idea, but I was mistaken about what that was. I thought that what I knew most about was myself, but I could not have been more wrong. I didn't know the first thing about myself, and Maine wasn't going to teach me. You don't learn about yourself by being alone, you learn about yourself from other people.
I honestly don't remember much after December. I kept a journal, which is still on my old Mac Classic, but no force on Earth could induce me to read it now. (Though I do remember that I ironically titled it "My Struggle," thus anticipating Karl Ove Knausgaard by a decade and a half.) I know I must have written and mailed off applications to a half dozen MFA programs, because the following spring I got back a half-dozen rejections. I remember hearing the sonar guitar riff of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time on New Year's Eve, which I spent glued to the radio, party of one. Sometimes I went to a nearby buffalo farm to watch the buffalo — there were only three of them — huddling together in the cold with an air of disinherited majesty. When things were at their very worst I would go down to the basement.
The guy who owned the farmhouse was a retired schoolteacher, and his hobby was making pickles. The basement was where he kept his pickle barrels, and late at night, when I was at my loneliest and most crazy, I used to jimmy the lock and creep down there. It was cold, and the floor was packed dirt, and there was no light —probably there was a light switch somewhere but I could never find it, so I was in complete darkness. Working by touch I slid the tops off the pickle barrels and felt the half-pickled cucumbers bobbing around in the brine. Then, slowly and methodically, crouching on the dirt floor in the cold and the dark, I ate them.
I lived like that for two more months before I called it quits; I lasted six months in all. Afterward I told people I left because I ran out of money, which was objectively true, but it wasn't the real truth. The real truth was that I left because I was sick of being cold and lonely and a lousy writer. I had finally reached the tipping point where the misery of living alone in Maine outweighed the misery of having to admit to myself that it wasn't working, that I did need other human beings, and that I wasn't a genius after all. I would have admitted anything as long as I didn't have to live in Maine anymore.
When I finally made up my mind to leave Ellsworth I was so relieved I felt like I was weightless. I couldn't believe it was finally over. I felt like I was walking on the moon. I stayed up all night packing everything I owned into the Subaru and left just as the sky was starting to show cornflower blue on the horizon. I drove out of town — the radio was playing "Tangled Up in Blue" — then drove back into town when I realized I'd forgotten my one good kitchen knife, then I drove out again, this time for good. Not a single word I wrote there was ever published. I haven't once set foot in the state of Maine since then.
What I hadn't figured out yet was that it's OK not to be a genius, whatever that is, if there even is such a thing. Since then I've learned that the creative life may or may not be the apex of human civilization, but either way it's not what I thought it was. It doesn't make you special and sparkly. You don't have to walk alone. You can work in an office — I've worked in offices for the past 15 years and written five novels while doing it. The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.
Lev Grossman is the book critic and lead technology writer for Time magazine and a widely published cultural critic. He is also the author of the New York Times best-selling novels The Magicians and The Magician King. His latest novel The Magician's Land is out today, Aug. 5, from Viking. A graduate of Harvard and Yale, Grossman lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.
To learn more about The Magician's Land, click here.