Breaking Up with a Novel, Falling in Love with the Next One

So, your brain works like this when you begin a relationship: a steady stream of oxytocin lasts about two years and gets you through the infatuation stage. During that time, you are giddily in love, and you do the due diligence (or you don’t) that gets you to something more lasting, something, possibly, permanent.


Here’s the trick. If you are still working on a novel after two years, it is time to throw it overboard. No, seriously. Part of what gets a reader to pass into the dream you wrote is a similar flood of hormones. Reading requires infatuation. Yes, you can pack a novel with drama and with exotic wildness, but somehow, somewhere the depth of infatuation a writer feels for his or her work will emanate from the page and enchant the reader. Or it will not–keep in mind that each reader will be enchanted with something different. But we tend to fall in love with willing partners. Enchantment breeds enchantment.

Novelists are oxytocin junkies. We fall in love—or we fall in love enough—to write and write against all expectation of a result, daftly believing in what we are doing in spite of no promise of permanence. And then, when we finish, we move on—or try to. Some novelists visit and revisit characters, unable to move on. There are a number of reasons: security (this stuff was published once, so why not try again?); habit (I already know these characters, this time and place); anxiety (how will I find another novel to write? I’ll just do this again—sort of).

Great novelists work the same material over and over. Think of all the orphans in Dickens, or all of his switched and hidden identities. Or all the women negotiating lives surrounded by powerful if vision-impaired men in Woolf. Faulkner built Yoknapatawpha County and then inhabited and re-inhabited it again and again. Maybe J.K. Rowling knew that she was beginning a 7 volume world at the start, but how could commercial success not have impacted that world? I could go on.

I could just as easily line up novelists who produced one, maybe two books and then stopped. Might I suggest that they were not prepared for the jarring and harrowing experience of finishing a book—of feeling bereft, broken up with? Their lives were intertwined with that book. It had been the one (as it should be, as it must be!). Yet, once the flow of oxytocin stopped, that’s where they were. Done. And done.

Would falling in love with the process be a solution? You get the oxytocin for two years, it doesn’t matter what—or who—you fall in love with. After the infatuation, you have to learn another way to love. Something more indelible. Love your process like that. I have been writing every day for years—fits and starts, fiction and nonfiction. I used it as a base on which I found a more fiery, single love (that book). After finishing it, I crashed hard, but I also had the writing, some kind of writing, to propel me forward.

I will find another, brighter love as I go forward. Another novel beckons. Before I berate myself too much for the difficulty of beginning the next, I must acknowledge that I am still haunted by the ghost of the last. My brain misses the rush of turning to those words, those characters, those places. So to will your brain. Be ready. It’s just the oxytocin. Just.

And so, I revisit places—the Calders at the National Gallery of Art remind me of the value of clean lines, whimsy, and balance (always balance!). In spite of the heartache, there is beauty—beauty made by hands, not simply discovered in nature. Although that beauty too—the changing fall colors, the scent of the season even as I walk on the National Mall—fills my sails with new wind.

I take my iPad to bed and write as I imagine Proust did, propped up among the pillows. If only the cats would bring me coffee. I have a table in a library on which I arrange my materials, and where I make progress. I wait for the next rush of crust-breaking hormones, chipping away with sad hands until that day arrives—when the glimmer becomes a fire again. I am ready.

Writing is like Dating

Recently, when I bemoaned re-entering the dating world—I don’t know what I am doing; it feels awkward; I’m not sure if I’m ready—a friend told me, “You have been dating. You’ve been dating your novel.” 

It seems strange to think about writing like a relationship. And yet, over the past year, my writing has been the single most reliable part of my life. For more than a year. My work has not stood me up once. It has waited patiently while I worked, or went on actual dates, such as they were. I wrote before so many dates, in the time I gave myself between here and some other there. I wrote in London. I wrote when I was supposed to be doing schoolwork. Sometimes the writing did not wait, and neither did I.

“Yes, but your writing isn’t going to satisfy you,” I can hear some churlish naysayer assert. Indeed. But, as I once tried to explain to someone who should have known better, when I write I feel rapturous, more connected to whatever one might consider ecstatically sexual, and more open to love than at any other time. I feel more able to love—and lust, the big lust—while I write. Writing is my way of loving the world. If anything, when I write, I feel less able to put up with the kind of trifling little lusts that casual dating provides. I am all but insufferable in my insistence on deep connection—match my intensity and magic or, please, don’t bother me.

That sounds terrible. It is.

Writing, done properly, is meant to engage absent readers; I write for them. However, I am also one of the readers—I write for me as well—not simply to write, but to read what I have written. I follow Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother, Buddy: “If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”

And, equally terrible, instead of waiting to find someone to love, let alone like, when I write, I get to be that person and get to love myself—and my writing!—without reservation or judgment. Have I ruined myself for anyone else? I don’t think so, but I’ve set a high bar. Not just for you, whoever you are, but for me. I have to love this writing and love generously and unfailingly. And shamelessly. I can. I will.

Daily (writing, and maybe dating advice)

One of the questions—there are thousands of questions—on the OK Cupid dating website is:

Ideally, how often would you have sex?

• Every day

• 3 to 4 times per week

• 1 to 2 times per week

• less than once per week

Secretly, this is a writing question.

So, you say that you want to write. I have many friends and acquaintances who make that claim. Maybe they like to read, or maybe they have something to get off their chests, or maybe there is some kind of residual romantic cache to being a writer. I hesitate to ask them, is there anything you like to do every day?

Most people only do a few things every day. We sleep (perchance dream). We eat and drink. Cup of coffee? Glass of wine? My dad had a small dish of ice cream every night. Work? I used to work seven day weeks—which is exhausting and revelatory. Parents parent every day—every single day. Some work out daily. Fortunately, I have no worn meniscus in my brain to keep me out of the mental pool more than every other day, and I am happier when I get my actual wet mile in daily. For some with partners, or even without, some kind of sexual activity happens daily.

How many of those do you do willingly, with a sense of purpose bound to deeper joy? How many are obligations that feel like you need a respite from every five—or less!—days? If you are the kind of person who rankles at the daily grind, maybe skip the writing, unless the rankle gets you going. I know plenty of cranky writers. Plenty—Jeremiah has many brothers and sisters.

One of the early discussions in grad school was the tricks writers used to trigger their daily duty. Sharpening pencils. Cleaning house. Eating M&Ms. Waking up.

Antonio Machado writes (translated here):

After living and dreaming

comes what matters most:

waking up.

Writing is like waking up—and it happens every day. It may be fueled—strike the “may”—it is fueled by our lives and dreams, but it is more than either. The same way our bodies move through the day—chopping onions, carrying bags from the car, wheeling our mothers into the doctor’s office—they come awake when we make love (I hope, for your sake that this is so). Writing is like that—an intentional and yet mysterious waking up. A discovery.

I almost always write with a plan. I have a first sentence and last sentence. And then I wake up. The middle—every other part—is a surprise. I start grabbing books off shelves, looking up physics formulas, checking the weather data from fifty years ago, calling a friend. I almost always end up with that last sentence, but the route shifts as fast as a glimpse—the meaning of the last sentence changing as all the shifting words transport me to a city whose streets are unfamiliar and entirely welcome, and whose secret is revealed in a way I had only dreamed.

Every day. If you want to write. Dream, live, write, wake up. Every day.

Dating Advice (or writing advice)

Complain all you want about online dating, and there is plenty to complain about, but if you are of a certain age, and you cannot (will not) date people from work—which also makes up your immediate social circle—then it’s off to the great internet meet n’ greet.

Dating poses a number of challenges later in life. First of all, by now you probably know much more about who you might like to meet than you did when you were 18, or 24, or 36. This is at once an advantage and a trap. “What if she is not exactly who I am looking for?” you might wonder. She may be too much like your Ex, or one of your Exes. Or, heaven forbid, too much like your mother. Are you still really fighting that battle? Chances are if you haven’t given it good long thought that you are. I am not suggesting that any of your Exes, or your mother for that matter, is a bad model for the date you seek, or, on the other hand, the exact person you should run screaming from the building to avoid (It’s your life; you know best). However, either impulse is likely to constrict your expectations. It’s bloody impossible to go swimming with dolphins when all you are thinking about is the White Whale, Ahab.

Second, you may have gotten over all the awkward first moves of your early dating life. “I know where this is going to end up,” you think, already having all the accoutrements ready in the bedroom. And things with your date may, eventually, end up there. May. Look if sex is all you seek there are plenty of other options in the world. I had a friend who declared, “If you don’t care who it is, you can fuck anybody.” Touché!

Remember: You are going on a date. You are meeting a person who is, with any luck in the world, different in ways you have not yet figured out. Slow down. Everywhere. Spend hours making out. Who cares that you know THAT secret trick—you can impress her later. And do not jump to making out. Kisses, short exploratory kisses are gifts not to be forsworn. They are the bubbles in the champagne. If you haven’t learned this yet—and many men and women have not—you can skip everything that follows.

Seriously friends, you will meet least dozens, if not hundreds (and if you move a few times, make it a thousand) of people who will tickle some fancy you have. I have the benefit of being an extrovert (in some ways), and have short conversations with upwards of 10-20 people I have never met before almost every single day. I intend to marry none of these people, but I would fight for the right to have these conversations all the same. If you are an introvert, prepare accordingly, but do not forget that a date is the beginning of a conversation. Let it be that. Learn as you talk. Listen to her. Listen to yourself.

Look, some dates will get annoyed if you are courting too slow. Advice: who cares? Anyone who wants to light the fuse after the first date, or third date, has most likely lit the wrong fuse. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Duck! And if you feel annoyed or anxious to get moving, remember this: everything you learn about this person now will help you know whether or not you will want to go on a second date, or a fifth date, or more. Introverts, you know that someone has to meet certain criteria to get past your healthy defenses; spend the time needed to discover. “But I don’t want to have to go through all this again,” you complain. Of course not, so slow down and maybe you won’t, later. Extroverts, you know how easily you can be charmed by a single aspect of another person (I’m giving myself much needed advice here)—remember that people are multi-faceted and that more than a first date requires connections across many facets.

And here’s my complaint. Too often online daters post, “No pen pals. If you can’t meet right away, don’t bother.” Can I just say that harboring an extrovert and introvert in my heart, that words, lots of words, are an essential part of my dating process. And not quick, little texts (although that can be delightful too, but like badminton in the backyard at dusk, can drift into chasing fireflies). Finding someone who can unfurl a story over paragraphs in writing—just as I do here—is my sweet spot. Of course, before the paragraphs come, something will have been sparked by who knows what, a phrase in a written dating profile? a provocative and thoughtful question? “I don’t do words,” one respondent declared early in the process, which, of course, promptly ended. Or someone rushes to meet, and then holds forth. I had a three hour coffee date that was an unspooling of work, home improvements, exes, and there had to be something else. I don’t think I said anything.

I know that my charming exterior works around a diligent writer who is both an extrovert and an introvert. I know that I will need to find someone who can manage both sides of my complicated equation—who wants me to write to her, and who wants to write to me. And she will need to share at least some aspects of this too.

Why writing? Because writing takes focused attention, takes time, and done well, offers a chance for discovery for both the reader and the writer. Writing, done well, offers a chance to grow and learn in perpetuity. What could be better than discovering together?

Before I collapse into, “This is all about me,” let me say, what works for me (the words) may not work for you. Chances are it will not. But you know what does work for you, don’t you? A little self-knowledge about this goes a long way. Revel in it, slowly. Well begun is half done, goes the maxim. Here! Here!