“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.”
I read this long ago, but I used to think he was exaggerating. Now I see that he was understating the matter. And he left out something important: it’s like having, not just an illness, but a mental illness. With no disrespect intended, but instead deepest fellow-feeling, I think I finally understand what being bipolar must be like.
It’s like this. Some days, I think my novel is amazing. Truly amazing. Luminous! Original! I would not change a word. It’s like it came fully formed and perfect into the world, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. I can’t wait for the entire world to read it, love it, make it into a miniseries. I’ll write a sequel! Hell, I’ll write a series! And it’s not just that; it gets worse. I am amazing, too, because I wrote it. I might look like an ordinary person, just another puffy-coat-wearing denizen of Brooklyn, riding the subway, walking my dog around the neighborhood, but I have a secret: I wrote a work of staggering genius! The happiness burns within me like the tiny blue flame of a pilot light and I walk around with a mysterious smile. If I am working on it before bed, I can’t sleep because my mind is racing in all directions.
Then there are other days. These are harder to describe. But when I am down, I am down. The novel is not only worthless, but also embarrassing, like a bad-smelling something stuck to the bottom of your shoe that you do not want to examine too closely. It lacks all merit, and even the honest vigor of a trashy novel. It is the work of a pathetic, self-deluded little person. I can’t look in the mirror, because then I will see that person, lacking not only talent but the self-awareness to recognize the lack of talent, a person who has, against all odds and in defiance of a complete lack of encouragement and ability, persisted in forcing into being a wordy, lifeless and self-centered so-called work of fiction. It’s hard to get out of bed or to find a reason to go through the day, because the animating purpose of my life has been revealed as an illusion. I am expelled from the Eden of imagining that I am special.
When I set out to write a novel, my chief goal was to finish it. My feeling then was that even a really bad novel, if complete and moderately coherent, was a kind of triumph: you had made something that wasn’t there before, you had done something that not everyone had the patience or determination to do. In theory, I still think this is true. And yet. And yet.
When I set out to write a novel, I put to rest the question of whether it was any “good” or what exactly, it was, genre-wise. This was absolutely necessary; I would never have finished otherwise. But the problem with putting such questions to rest is that eventually they return. And not like they were before, but changed: sinister and ferocious, like you put them to rest in a pet cemetery.