I’m on page 38 of 327 pages of a novel I’m reading and I want to put it down. I’m uncomfortable reading. Anxiety is building in me. Anguish weighs me down. Even shame.
And yet — I also experience a sense of wonder.
The novel is called THE PETTING ZOO, and it’s the first novel I wrote, 30 years ago. I came across the manuscript — wasn’t sure I still had it — when I was going through old papers as a way to stay occupied and entertained during this period of coronavirus and social distancing.
There was a time when I truly believed I would never write a novel. I was still unpublished at that point. I was exclusively a short story writer, basking in my collection of stories that served as my master’s thesis and helped me earn an MFA.
A novel was an insurmountable project. I would never do it. I had no interest. And then I started writing and my vision got longer and the next thing you know . . .
It took about a year to write the first draft. Another year of rewriting until I thought the novel was finished. I was proud — and nervous. I wanted my novel published. I wanted to make a name for myself as a literary figure. I submitted to agents and publishers. I received rejection after rejection.
But then I received a response from a publisher who said THE PETTING ZOO was an important novel and absolutely had to be published. My heart soared — but not for long. Turned out this response was only from an editorial assistant, and the actual publisher didn’t share her passion for my work. Another rejection.
More rejection. Eventually, I gave up on THE PETTING ZOO, and went to work on another novel. Not sure how I could have made the decision to try again after such a sense of failure and so much rejection, but I’ve been making that decision all my writing life, as most writers do, if they’re still going to write.
I don’t put THE PETTING ZOO down on page 38, like I’m tempted to. I push on, hoping it gets better. By halfway through, I begin skimming to reach the end. What I’m grappling with: this novel is bad. Real bad.
I’m not even sure what the story is about. Something involving a romantic drifter who believes in love at first sight and falls for a conflicted woman currently being gaslighted by another man. Plus several subplots including one about an advice columnist and another about an incestual relationship.
The novel is both overwritten (passages of cringe-worthy turgid prose) and underwritten (undeveloped characters with vague motivations). The narrative voice lacks control; the point-of-view strays. A lot happens plot-wise, and it’s too long.
My anxiety and shame — where does that come from? There was a time when I thought this novel was going to be my breakout — and I actually let, even encouraged people to read it. Some praised my work (they must have been gaslighting me, like one of the characters from the novel). No one told me my writing was bad. Well, one person tried to tell me, in an indirect way, and I responded by eventually breaking up with her.
And yet . . . I recognize the nuggets of promise in the novel. I had a knack for plotting, structure, and pace, which have always been one of my writing strengths. Some scenes were strong enough to be the foundation of future scenes in future work. I could dig into the emotional states of characters.
So all that is on the positive side of the ledger. But what mostly rescues me from despair is letting the past be the past and realizing how far I’ve come as a novelist. How much I’ve learned and grown and honed my craft. How much better I’ve gotten.
Last year, I took the time to re-read my two published novels, STASH and CLEAN BREAK, and when I finished I was mostly satisfied. I’d written good books. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. And have readers like them.
As for THE PETTING ZOO: I don’t need to save it. I’ll certainly never read it again and I’d prefer if no one did. This manuscript doesn’t need to become part of my “papers” collected after I’m dead. Ha, ha. I’m going to make a fire today. I’ll add the pages to the flames. I’ll watch them burn.