"There Are Problems to Be solved..."
Journal of Disaster: Part Two
I’ve always called my writing journal a “journal of disaster.” It is my place to write without outward judgement, to make mistakes, and to fail in a variety of ways. In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978)1, among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. Struggling with a novel for years is hard work and frustrating. When do you stop? When do you write another one? When do you leave a project and move on? I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one.
The second bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that journals are meant to be a place for mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” Reading that concept, it just resonates. There is the inspiration that pushes a writer to research, imagine form, and finally get motivated to write. But, after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of inspirations to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions, inspired missteps, forsaken characters, beautiful acts with no consequences, and writing yourself into a hole. That is what happens in my journal of disasters. It may even be closer to a maze (think House of Leaves).
Thanks for reading Suspension of Disbelief! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work published, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life is solving problems, not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me as a writer. In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision we make to the last in writing a novel, we are solving the problems. That is the job. But your journal isn’t the answers to your creative problems, it is proof that you are willing to find an answer, think your way into something new, creative, a pathway forward. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal — I probably take on 700 pages of writing. The journal is a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to different pages. Nothing is wasted. Good ideas don’t go away. That is the function of the journal.
I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a “journal of disasters,” but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off that the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? Is your character really conflicted? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live with constant self doubt? When you come to these questions, you’re emerging as an artist. You’re emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novel. We have to read other novels, study, think – deeply. We have to run chapters over and over in our heads and fine tune them like a film editor. This is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted your life.
P.S. The Paris Review Interviews series is a fascinating dive into writers, their work, ideas, and creativity. I bring them to the beach in the summer and I write in them, like I am studying. They are not all gold and some of the writers I don’t even know. But it is a rich place of ideas, connections, and listening to writers think. Check out the series.
The Paris Review Interviews, I: 16 Celebrated Interviews. United States, Picador, 2006.