Grasping at the straws of self-help

Exhausted, depressed, feeling sick. A bug bite on my knee (a round red circle, and I am paranoid that I have Lyme disease AGAIN!) I tried an exercise the other night that was helpful. Instead of getting so angry at things that weren’t the way I want them, I tried being grateful for the very things that are bugging me.


I am grateful for my job. It’s given me money, more professional self-confidence, and social interaction.

See how much better that feels?

In a bookstore the other day and experienced my usual feelings of despair at how even “big” well reviewed books look like so much unwanted junk once they are a year out in paperback with a sale sticker on them. Does nothing last? ? What’s the point of writing? I think the problem is probably all in my head – because I used to have so much time and energy and innocence and optimism for reading all kinds of books, and now I look at these books on tables and realize with a horrible pragmatism that the chances I’ll get around to reading any of them are slim to nil. Maybe what affects me so negatively in bookstores is actually nostalgia for my past self, that other reader who I used to be (up for anything!), and I’m grieving for her. I have reminders of her all around: that lovely Penguin copy of “The Vivisector” by Patrick White I’ll never get to, the Deleuze & Guattari  sitting unread in the office. Good Lord!

For my book, I tell myself the only thing I can do is try to write with charm. Create the character you want to be, the world you want to live in. Make it the thing you want to carry with you and hug to your pillow each night.

On trying to find the perfect title

The old title for my book no longer works, and so I need to find a new one. But I’m having a terrible time with it. I am thinking of bad titles constantly. But what I’m looking for is the perfect title: one that makes a promise, is intriguing, and somehow reflects the essence of the book.

Because I’ve come up with so many awful titles, I’ve been analyzing my favorite titles and there is a definite pattern. But the good title can only be seen in hindsight. Even knowing the formula, I can’t seem to create a good title on my own.  Here are titles I think are perfect or nearly so in no particular order or ranking.

The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano): So confounding, fierce, and humorous – just like the book! There’s tremendous energy in this title from having a totally unexpected adjective modify detectives. And to have detectives, plural! It’s such a surprise. Who are these detectives? They must live in a world full of dangerous adjectives and I must read more at once.

The Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper): Even now, decades after I first read this book, I still get shivers thinking of it. The Dark Is Rising has such somber urgency as if someone is warning us directly. It’s happening! And doesn’t it convey the sense of mystical forces massing? Shivers!

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan): A hugely successful title. In one swoop it sets out the central mystery (who is the lightning thief?) and lets you know it is set in a world in which someone can steal lightning – the world where Greek gods are still a factor. As with the Savage Detectives, you don’t expect that modifier, lightning, at all with thief. That is the surprise wording that makes this title so intriguing.

The Big Nowhere (James Ellroy): My favorite James Ellroy book, the first I read by him, and one that totally blew my mind. As a title The Big Nowhere is jazz and noir and style – the perfect essence of Ellroy.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling): Here is a title that makes such a wonderful promise straight away. And it contains the very essence that has made the books so appealing: the blending of homey familiarity and magic.

S/Z (Roland Barthes): What the hell? Right? What an allusive, elusive title! So playful and seemingly off the cuff (he can’t even bother to spell words out!) and yet that sense of rigor behind it (coming from the slash – this title would be nothing without its punctuation). I can think of no other title that has such a whisper of promise. Read this book – be seen with this book under your arm – and you will be in the know!

Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson): Has the phrase as title ever been done better? (Well, perhaps by Flannery O’Connor…)

No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian (both by Cormac McCarthy): I love both these titles. Blood Meridian has a terrible grandeur to it as well as the essence of the book, the geography of the American West drenched in blood. No Country for Old Men is, I think, perhaps the first indication that McCarthy has a sense of humor. Very black humor.  Every Cormac McCarthy book is in some ways about setting, and it’s there in these titles.

Oh, I could go on and on about titles. What I am looking for is essence, a promise of what kind of book it will be, and a surprise (however tiny) in the wording that catches you and makes you intrigued. Easier said than done!

On trying, and failing, to abandon a novel

I have a novel I’ve been working on for a while (if a while actually means forever) that involves family, crime, love, sex, despair, murder, drugs, and … Proust. My character is struggling to write a doomed essay about him and keeps failing, due to all kinds of bad behavior.

I’ve tried many times to get her to give up on this essay, even to the point of thinking I should just throw this novel away altogether. I guess my fear is that people will see Proust and experience a violent lack of interest. If I didn’t love Proust the way I do, I might see this in a review or on a book jacket and probably think “what a load of pretentious horseshit.”

That aside, just mentioning him creates an almost intolerable comparison between my rather lightweight novel, consisting of hi-jinks and a few desperate jokes, and the great 20th century masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. In short, I think my book is doomed.

Just recently, the New York Times Book Review ran an endpaper essay about aborted novels. Some novels simply can’t be fixed and need to be abandoned, and in the article a bunch of prominent authors contributed anecdotes about the bad novels they had given up on. I read this at a vulnerable time when I really thought I had mucked things up with this book badly enough – having put all my favorite things in there only to come up with a book that would appeal to an audience of one – that I should just stop.

And I really thought about stopping, moving on. But I’ve tried to stop and kill it so many (many!) times, and each time it’s re-animated and come lurching after me, haunting my thoughts. So instead of trying to kill it, I re-read it, and read an earlier draft (which sometimes has more energy), and I decided to make another try.

I hope I am not stuck in a lifetime loop of abandoning and then retrieving this story. But if I am, I’m not sure if there’s much I can do about it. By this point it’s become a strange companion, something that, just by virtue of being in my life over so long, has taken on shape and density – almost like a person I keep running into every so often. In its own way, it’s a comforting presence. And maybe, even if I never finish or publish it, I can simply enjoy it for being there.

Great, now I’m a high-fantasy nerd

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. I almost never like high-fantasy epics of m’lady courtliness, plus (ho hum) spooky old darkness, plus swords forged someplace awesomely dread of some kind of dreadly steel, plus, oh, dragons and prophecy and kitchen-sink Tolkien. Now I know why I’m so dismissive of that stuff – it always falls short. This book does not. The copy I have looks like any other pulpy doorstopper you might buy in a pinch at a drugstore before heading to jury duty, and yet I stayed up quite late reading and against my will and good sense went down the “Song of Ice and Fire” rabbit hole, even unto behavior like checking out George RR Martin’s livejournal and reading of his football preferences, yea for several entries even. F*** it’s now onto “A Clash of Kings” and more Westerossian madness for me and a futile attempt to shake free of books that slice like fine Valyrian steel through all my reading prejudices and plans. Bring on the dragons.

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