Over the weekend, I engaged in a heavy dose of self-torture by reading about literary genius, Jonathan Franzen, and how he came to be so god-like to book critics. This followed with a dream in which I met Franzen, who refused to speak to me because he was disgusted with my writing. It was, of course, a metaphor for my secret fear about my own work.
On productive days, I am happy with my progress, the shape of my story coming to me in consistent pieces. On unproductive days, I question what to write next or is it time to print it all out and start massaging, or worse: The story doesn’t make any sense and I need serious guidance with pulling it all together.
I used to think that my greatest fear was that I’d get to the end of this writing sabbatical and have an unfinished novel. After being snubbed by Franzen-in-my-dream, I realize that writing a mediocre book would harm my spirit more. So I decided not to do that — to write a crappy book. Then I read about Franzen’s partner and fellow writer, Kathryn Chetkovich, who wrote a beautiful essay a few years after Franzen’s first bestseller, The Corrections, sold over 3 million copies. The memoir essay, “Envy,” haunts in its honesty as Chetkovich describes living under those victorious years with Franzen while she plugged along, her feeble attempts to finish a book in the overwhelming shadow of her lover’s success. Reading Chetkovich helped me to understand that there would be something far grosser than to write a substandard novel: To live with Jonathan Franzen while I wrote it.
Writing rumor has it that Franzen is less prickly than he used to be, now that the world has acknowledged his literati greatness, but the thought of having him as a live-in critic would be enough to make me break my no-alcohol-for-Lent vow. So I’m not going to do that either — go live with Jonathan Franzen.
I will never be a Franzen. I would need to redo childhood, probably attend a different school system; read more books, read the right books, not that that wouldn’t be fantastic but it’s not reality. I can be a better writer than I am today, though. I’ve seen improvements in my own work over the last four years before I hit the road and opened the sabbatical up to more than only writing.
That enigma of a story, “From Down Under,” (renamed In The Land of Oz) which I began in late 2014 is already being reshaped since I kicked off my writing journey. I am doing most days what I set out to do until I compare myself to great novelists, or other non-Franzen writers, ones whose content is not in the same genre as mine or even literary fiction at all. But I compare. I compare because they’ve finished and I haven’t. They’ve published and I haven’t. They did what they set out to do, and I’m still a work in progress.
So I pull inward, reminding myself that Rosemary-time is not Franzen-time, and I let go. I let go of Jonathan Franzen and allow Kathryn Chetkovich to be my guide. Sometimes I spend more than six hours a day with the novel (Franzen), but sometimes significantly less, and yes, sometimes no actual writing at all but pondering and thinking and reading (Kathryn), always the reading of those writers I would be honored to emulate.
On this made-up adventure-by-highway, purposefully solo if one isn’t counting the cat, I continue to do my best to address those hidden fears and unacknowledged insecurities so that they are not barriers but motivators, pushing me into a realm of doing what I do not already know how to do but doing it anyway. Most of all, and this is the best part, I am humbly reminded of why I am writing in the first place: Because I live for the flow of the words and with each sentence that I write, especially the run-on ones, I am able to love my husband all over again.
If Kathryn can live with Jonathan and still produce the lovely essay, “Envy,” and eventually write two books on her own — in the face of Franzen’s fifth novel and second blockbuster, Freedom — then this soothes my yet-to-be-published self. And I thank her, I thank Kathryn, for reminding me that all writers struggle, that to be a better writer, one must be willing to put in the work, even if you’re living with Jonathan Franzen.
Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay, “Envy,” published in 2003. Truly touching: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/22/extract