Though we are in the throws of National Poetry Writing Month and the A to Z Challenge, the theme this year for Experience Writing is A Year of Finishing Novels, and I need to get back to mine. To rekindle my motivation and hopefully yours, we have a very special guest post from author Jacob M. Appel whose new novel, Shaving with Occam, came out this January.
Jacob M. Appel is an American author, poet, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Education at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, where he is Director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry. He is also the author of novels, short story collections, an essay collections, a volume of poems and a compendium of medical dilemmas.
The Third Priority: Reflections upon Motivation
I have now published twenty books. That places me one volume ahead of the late Joan Didion—if this were a competition—one volume behind Ann Beattie, and some incalculable number of texts short of the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. Some of my books have been reasonably well-received: or, at least, my grandmother enjoyed them. Others have evaporated into that forlorn ether of remaindered novels, shorn of their covers or relegated to the bargain bins that serve library fundraisers. Unlike with my first few novels, which I secretly fantasized might win plaudits from Oprah and Harold Bloom, become staples of cocktail conversation and college curricula, and ultimately alter the course of western civilization, I have now accepted that my twenty-first book is unlikely to outsell Harry Potter. In all likelihood, it will not even outperform the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. And yet I am determined to see my obscure literary brainchild to fruition. Which leads to the question: How does a writer motivate himself while scribbling well below the cultural radar screen?
The easy answer is that I have not fully accepted that my twenty-first book won’t prove the intellectual earthquake that my first twenty were not. This does happen. Some writers, like Kafka and John Kennedy Toole, have to wait for posthumous glory, but many others—including some of our most cherished authors—did not gain significant readerships until midway through their careers. Toni Morrison, for instance, had published two exquisite novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, before she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon at the age of forty-six and finally garnered the attention she deserved. Cormac McCarthy’s first five novels, including Blood Meridian, received limited notice—until All the Pretty Horses shattered the nation’s literary icescape when he was sixty. So maybe there is hope for me yet. In any case, it is never too late to publish a “break out” book—as Harriet Doerr did at 74 and Millard Kaufman at 90. Building up a body of work can be a path to making that happen. Edith Pearlman’s brilliant Honeydew offers an outstanding example of how a crowning achievement can be both the capstone of a literary career and a door to recognition for previous work. Nothing wrong with thinking big, and so you should. It’s not as though you’re asking to play shortstop for the New York Yankees or marry the Queen of England; rather, you’re seeking recognition for work in an area where you have developed skills over many years of hard work and commitment. That is not at all unreasonable.
But how does a writer operationalize that (to use the language of the modern economy)? Thinking big is good and well in theory, but much harder when you’re using your first twenty books as doorstops and your children keep asking you why the heat has been turned off and a mattress-sized hole in the roof lets in the snow. My limited wisdom is to make writing one’s third priority in life. Not, I emphasize, one’s first priority. A mistake many writers make is trying to prioritize their writing ahead of other fundamental obligations like work and family. Maybe this works if you’re J. D. Salinger or Emily Dickinson, but like starvation diets, most such efforts succumb to the pressures of daily living. Earning a living and engaging with one’s family are usually the top two priorities for most human beings, although both definitions of livelihood and family are certainly fluid and flexible in the modern era. Embrace that. But make sure writing is one’s third priority—ahead of learning Esperanto or how to play the oboe or binge watching all of the original episodes of What’s My Line? If writing ranks below third on the list of life’s obligations, one is far less likely to complete novel one, let alone twenty-one.
Often, I have discovered, my students believe that they are making writing their third priority, when they’re not. I confess I am often guilty of this self-deception myself. What they are actually prioritizing are the small, mundane tasks—finishing their taxes, sending out Christmas presents—that they believe stand in the way of writing, so that they will then have a schedule free and clear to write. Maybe it is human nature to tackle these minor tasks before large creative ones, or possibly, we’re trained to do this as part of our elementary school time-management education, but in either case, it’s a great skill set for an administrative assistance, but not for a writer. These minor tasks sap one’s energy, so that when one finally has a clear schedule, one no longer has the stamina or drive to put pen to paper. Write first! Then tackle the chores of daily living. I assure you that nobody is going to send you to prison for tax evasion, or refuse to invite you to eat cranberries and roast goose, if you arrive at the post office at 3pm and not 9am. In contrast, sitting down to your novel after a series of errands can prove daunting.
Yet I suspect the leading obstacle to writing, for most writers, is writing itself. What do I mean? Most writers have a number of literary projects in their hopper—as well as requests for book reviews, friends who seek blurbs, colleagues who ask for a clever, short commentary for a newsletter or solicit a human-interest article for the local paper, etc. These offers are often flattering; they can prove rewarding. In aggregate, they are also the novelist’s sworn enemies. It is not enough to make writing one’s third priority. One must make one’s principal literary project, whether a novel or a work of nonfiction, one’s third priority. Otherwise, one will drown under the weight of interesting yet tangential projects.
Which leads us to priority number four: Submitting. If you’re going to make writing your third priority, you owe it to yourself to make sending that writing out into the world your fourth priority. Do not dither, or doubt yourself, or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. None of us may ever catch up with Joyce Carol Oates, but we don’t have to. It only takes one book, and we are all only 54,000 words away from our own Great Gatsby. If it’s not book twenty-one for me, then at least I’m one step closer.