5 Survival Tips for the Isolated Novelist

Modern publishing has conspired with the Internet to convince you that the odds of your talent being recognized (or that it is actual talent) are minuscule, everyone else has more friends than you and you are the only writer on earth who doesn’t have a critique group. For most of us, some or all of those things are true. We feel alone, trapped in jobs we know we weren’t put on this earth to do (if you’re a theistic type), failed and marginalized.

Take a look at the average novelist or literary agent’s Twitter feed or blog and it can seem like there is a vibrant world wherein authors and industry professionals are almost too busy having martinis and discussing The Big Questions of Meaning to write their brilliant tomes. It’s often referred to by the broad and forbidding phrase “The Writing Life.”

You’re probably thinking the same thing I am: Where oh where can a nobody like you find a toehold in that world?

Sadly, the odds are that most of us won’t. We will continue to arrange our index cards, torture our well-meaning protagonists, empathize with our downtrodden make believe friends and agonize over the biggest question of all: “is my work any good?” in private. We will do all this from our Ikea desks in the corners of the attic, the laundry room, the bedroom or kitchen counter whenever we have a free hour or two. And no matter how much rejection we face, many of us (the numbers do begin to dwindle) simply won’t quit. We are relentless because in the end writing is a calling. A deceptive, indifferent calling that chooses oh so few.

Some of us do have some semblance of the aforementioned Writing Life, though most of us do not. We don’t have what the late Christopher Hitchens once described as “an interesting friend” to meet at the end of a productive day. There are no critique groups in our lives. And even if we know where to find the genus Agent Literati we don’t know any of them personally.

So, in the spirit of anonymous solidarity that is the best of the Internet, I propose a few survival tips for us folks living in Obscurity. After all: for every Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Sherman Alexie, there are hundreds of brilliant carpenters waiting for their pub day in the afterlife. Here are some ways I’ve learned to stay strong while I wait.


Tip #1 – Don’t Drink Too Much

This flies in the face of almost every accepted trope of the writing lifestyle. You know the popular wisdom: writers are a complicated, tortured, bunch who can find succor only in their imaginary friends (whom they abuse severely, of course). Therefore the only way they can endure this intense emotional distress and toil is to drown themselves in liquid love.

It’s a fun and romantic thought and to be sure, some alcohol is required to survive the writing life. But the truth is that drunkards are only very rarely productive artists. Even more rare are the geniuses like Joyce, who was known to be a problem drinker. And let’s face it: the odds of you being a modern day Joyce are thinner than a crackhead’s wrists. It may have been a hallmark of Fitzgerald’s lifestyle but is that really what you want for yourself? Consider John Irving. By no means a puritan but a former athlete, a family man and a wildly productive and successful writer. I in no way advocate abstinence but Irving recently gave up booze entirely and he’s still going strong.

Furthermore, alcohol is a depressant and right now you don’t need to accelerate any downward spirals. Throw some vodka on top of that confusion and panic and watch the blaze consume what little connection to the real world you have. Drink but do it away from the chaos, when you’re happy and feeling positive. Be mindful of your own emotional state.

Of course, what adult in the modern age could get through life without a little tipple? So allow me to suggest a simple equation:

Take the number of pages you’ve written today – multiple it by the number of people you have spoke to who were not obligated to engage you in conversation (i.e., the barista doesn’t count, even if you know her name). The result is the number of drinks you should have before tomorrow dawns.

Alex’s Theorum: Page count X # of Friends/Family = # of drinks

Today for example:

I spoke to my wife, ran into my cousin and will see a friend at a bar later. This morning I wrote and edited two pages. That is SIX! I could have six drinks (of any kind really) today. If I throw in my dog I get eight.

Literary winning!



Tip #2 – Show the People Who Are There That You Appreciate Them

This one is doubly hard if you have a spouse. Triple if your spouse doesn’t quite “get” why you’re typing away at dawn or into the quiet hours of the night. But these are the people who endure your index cards on the walls, your carefully stacked piles of notes and space case drifting. They may be your only connection to the human world. (This is true of pets as well, BTW.)

I know: it’s nearly impossible to work when someone (however well meaning) taps you on the shoulder or interrupts a delicate scene to inquire about whether or not the dog has been fed. You were chasing down the right word to describe cerrilian in a totally new way that would blow Michael Chabon’s glasses off and they just had to interrupt you. They don’t understand that the search you were just on is like trying to catch a feather in a hurricane. They don’t understand because they never can understand. You should get a divorce, like, now!

You know something: good! It’s a good thing that they can’t understand how absolutely obsessive you are. If they could it would mean that they belong in the psych ward with you and your imaginary friends. Right now, you need someone from the real world. Someone to remind you that out there, off the page and out of your head, people really do care about reality TV, property values, petty insults and holiday parties. After all, who are you writing about if not them? How can you describe them if you don’t know at least one?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t jealously protect your own space and your process. But it is vitally important that you keep your team happy because the roster is pretty thin right now. The good news is that you often won’t have to do much. Compliment an outfit, be the big spoon, do the dishes, watch a game together, vacuum the carpet. Rub your dog’s belly. If you have kids, blow off a morning of writing to walk with them to school every once in awhile. (I’m just going to go ahead and say that once you have progeny it’s best to retrain yourself to write around their needs.) Play sports with a friend, have coffee, like, you know, a real live boy or girl.

If you are married, here’s a simple tip: once a fortnight (or more frequently but not less) make a good meal, wear something you know they like, prepare something special (i.e., full massage, a private adult activity you know they love, etc.) and shower them with love and affection.


Tip #3 – Manage Your Obsessions

It’s okay to have them. You wouldn’t be much of a writer if there weren’t things in life that really capture your imagination and compel you to explore some aspect of humanity deeply. Without a preoccupation with music Jennifer Egan might not have written A Visit From the Good Squad at all. Certainly it would be a different novel and we’d all be a little less for missing a piece of genius.
Obsessions yield insight at their best. At their worst they can consume you emotionally. Notice I said “emotionally.” Being an intellectual your mind must be consistently challenged. A preoccupation that stimulates your neural pathways is like going to the gym, so have at it. But if something compromises your empathy, your feelings of joy and sorrow, you lose your ability employ those tools for your characters. And a writer who has no feelings for his/her characters may as well be writing technical manuals.


Tip #4 – The Self-Interview

A book is essentially a dumping ground for your political, emotional and psychosexual baggage. And because you spend your entire life in the source material of your consciousness and (to a lesser degree) your subconscious it will be filled with metaphors and themes you cannot see. This is to be celebrated, ultimately, as the thing that makes every writer unique. This is the reason that even if you used all the same plot points, characters and structure your version of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven would be wildly different from the original.

(This is why, in music, covering songs is such a time-honored tradition. Irma Thomas’ version of Time is On My Side is a different animal than the original Rolling Stones record. Better too, for my money but that’s another post)

Now, no one should seek to understand everything about themselves. That kind of narcissistic navel-gazing leads to myopia, both literary and personal. But it is helpful, when editing or even during the process to ask yourself a series of questions about your narrative from the perspective of a journalist.

It shouldn’t be too hard. After all, you make shit up all the time.

So, what would an enterprising journalist doing a piece for say themillions.com ask you about your book? Think about the plot points, themes and voices that are obvious to you.

For example:

The Millions: around the middle of Act II in your new novel Confess Before We March, the protagonist, Mr. Meow-Meow takes a job as a barista after the Angry Cat Uprising. When his boss orders him to remove the death ray strapped to his back he refuses and instead recites an 8th Century Persian poem. Your own father was a scholar of Eastern poetry and a Vietnam war vet. Did you draw on this?

You: You’re very perceptive. Did you go to Brown? Yes, now that you mention it (breaks down into tears). My own father went bald too!

I do this all the time and so should you. It’s a bonus to be prepared to answer questions but the real value here is that you are finding your own pathways to deeper meanings in your work. And you’re doing it independently before anyone else realizes that Mr. Meow-Meow’s broken death ray is really an extension of your anxieties over your own burgeoning baldness.

This activity is not meant to replace the actual writing or an honest and bold critique from an intelligent peer. But it is something you can and should do when you have an idle moment. Play this game and you will likely uncover all sorts of things to occupy your mind, as well as clearer understanding of what is prominent and what is less so. Good writing contains layers of meaning and method and this is also a good barometer to determine if you’re making things too hard on the reader.

Note – if everything is completely obvious and unsophisticated to you, you might want to consider a rewrite.


Tip #5 – Be True to Yourself

I tell you this as I tell myself: your people are out there. Somewhere there are writers who are as committed to the craft as you are, enjoy the same authors you do, share your frustrations and preoccupations and are just as hungry for success. You will find them one day. Maybe it will be happenstance, perhaps you’ll take a workshop seminar and it will be kismet the first time you read each other’s pieces. Maybe you’ll finally meet at your publisher or literary agent’s holiday party (fingers and toes crossed!).

For now, go to readings, be bold. Shake hands with authors and tell them that you’re working on something too. Don’t mind if they look at you like you’re insane. They are too!

Talk to the other disheveled odd ducks in the room. Eventually you will meet the right flock and hopefully forge a friendship that enriches you all. God knows its hard to find that interesting friend, let alone one who’ll meet you for a drink after a good, long day of writing.

Don’t settle for a group who you know won’t get what you’re trying to do. This is a decision you will need to take as seriously as your spouse or whether or not to have children. You will be opening up your soul to whomever you end up with and if it is mishandled you not only get bad advice, you end up wasting the one thing you are already losing: time.

This is not to say that you should only work with writers who fit your demographic profile. You don’t need to seek out thirty-something white women if you are a thirty-something white woman, or recent immigrants if you yourself have only just arrived to America. Rather, you need to be with people who get your humor, get your phrasing, understand your qualms with the publishing industry, have empathy and courage. It’s no easy thing to tell someone to their face that the scene they love so much is a bust and should be abandoned.

Chart Your Path

There is more advice about writing out there than ways to reduce your town’s carbon foot print. Take mine with as much salt as you can. These are just some simple things that I struggle with in my own obscurity. As the late, brilliant Gabriel Garcia Marquez said (hugely paraphrased): “our solitude is our lives.”

Find your own way, then share it with someone. Share it with me. Hell, by the time you read this I will likely have failed to take some or all of my advice.



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