The Finish Line

This weekend, this happened.

Which is to say, Love and a Short Leash, the novel I wrote about here and have been mentioning obliquely and incessantly in various social media platforms is finally complete. Now it is ready to take flight in this big, terrible world and hopefully find a cozy nest somewhere. Metaphors!

I am not ruling out self-publishing. I’ve seen more and more people go this route, and not just odd cranks and fanfic enthusiasts, but for-real authors. The idea of having complete ownership over my creative output is very appealing to me, and I have the ebook chops to make my own digital novel with ease. However, what I don’t have is the reach, influence, and free time to hustle and get this book into as many hands as I’d like. And I do feel that, considering the insane amount of time and I spent writing this thing, I owe myself the effort of seeing if more conventional channels want to publish it. If that doesn’t pan out…well, I’ll just burn that bridge when I get to it.

This book began in its life as a short story I wrote when I was in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. The head of program then was Michael Cunningham, author of the The Hours (among other novels). In the first class I had with him, a sort of “freshman seminar” for brand new MFA candidates, he told the assembled hopeful writers, “The world doesn’t want your stories.”

What he meant was, nobody is out there begging for you to finish your work. If you set out to write something and you never finish it, nobody will be banging on your door to demand it. This applies to every creative endeavor, but especially so to writing. The world is a big place and it will get along just fine without you and your thoughts and your dreams, thank you very much.

I don’t believe Michael said this to be discouraging or to intimidate us, drill-sergeant-style. I took it as a simple reminder that writing is really, really, really hard (see?), and there is already so much of it, more than any human could read in 10 lifetimes, that one more story is a tiny drop in an infinitesimally large bucket, and you must know this before you pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard.

When I began writing this novel, I operated under this assumption: Nobody wants this thing. Sometimes this attitude gives you a sense of defiant me vs. the world-ism, which can be useful in the solitary endeavor of writing. But it can also be a crushingly depressing outlook if you’re inclined to dark thoughts, which is me in spades. I blame my genes. My Irish side gets the big ideas, my German side makes me do the hard work, and then both sides gang up to whisper What’s the point, really? That negativity, plus not having long stretches of time to work on this novel, is what caused me to abandon this book at long stretches.

Last year, I resolved to push past this feeling and finally finish a draft of this novel that had lingered on my hard drive and in my mind since 2004. I still had the idea Nobody wants this thing at the back of my head. However, I also began to make regular updates on Twitter and Facebook about my progress. I tried to make the updates an even mix of clinical (how much I’d done and how much I had yet to do) and affirmation/self encouragement (e.g., “THIS IS GONNA MELT YOUR FACE, GUYS.”).

I did this for much the same reason I made similar updates regarding my efforts to get into shape: To create public accountability. (Idea admittedly stolen from Drew Magary’s Public Humiliation Diet.) If I talked online about how I was working out, it’s that much more embarrassing to walk around looking like a land monster, because then people will whisper Oh, he gave up… Likewise, if I kept posting novel updates, that obliged me to continue until I finished. Otherwise, when people asked me about it, I’d have to do the dance of, Yeah, I was working on that book for a while, but you know, I’ve been so busy…

In doing this, I found that many people–real-life friends, online friends, and virtual strangers alike–were both supportive and curious, sending encouragement while wanting to know more about the novel. Especially since I finally completed my first draft, I’ve gotten heartening pats on the back and atta boys from so many people, which is amazing motivation for an endeavor where the payoff comes much, much later, if at all. And as I reached the home stretch, with the end in sight, I got some genuine I can’t wait to read this thing notes from people I love and admire. This, more than anything else, enabled me to power my way to the end.

I still believe it’s best to approach the whole writing business–particularly the novel writing business–assuming that no, the world doesn’t want your stories. But I also found that when you share the journey, even in the most cursory way, the world might like to hear those stories anyway.

So, anybody wanna publish a novel?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Russo/501579249 Chris Russo

    Awesome Matt.  So proud of you- with or without a completed novel.  But especially for putting your self and your fantastic mind out there.