Saturday, October 27, 2007

So What Happened to My Great American Novel?

When I graduated with my bachelor's degree in English Literature, I decided not to go to grad school because I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, I did know that a) I needed money and b) it would have been a waste of taxpayer-subsidized loans to go to grad school if I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself. So 11 days after I graduated, I packed up my car and moved to Orlando, FL, to (briefly) live with my dad. The theory was, I'd write the Great American Novel (hereafter GAM, not to be confused with "those" gams), get rich, and be able to go to Disney World whenever I wanted to. Okay, I wasn't very practical at 21, but who the hell is?

Instead, I ended up working at Disney for 12 years to more or less support my writing habit. Still, I knew I wanted to do something with my literary talents, and answering complaint letters for Der Maus was not high on my list of jobs I wanted to retire from. I went to the 1997 International Space Development Conference, got "religion" and dedicated myself to writing of a somewhat more practical nature. Instead of writing science fiction, which I was no damn good at, I'd put my brain to work marketing space travel in--or off--this world. It wasn't quite practical as my father saw it, but there was at least a market for technical writers, and he dug that. I've been steadily employed as one since 2001, and been in the space business since last year, so I must have done something right. I can, for all practical purposes, call myself a writer, in that I get paid for my work--both on the job and occasionally as a freelancer.

From the time I started my master's degree in 1999, my non-fiction, practical writing began to outweigh my fiction writing. In fact, sifting through my files, I find that my "completed fiction" dwindled down to two or three short stories a year from 2002 to 2006, and nothing finished so far this year. The last long story I finished was a Star Wars novel that is perfectly putrid, but something I'd always wanted to write. That done, several other long projects have been started, put on the back burner, or just plain dropped. The "unfinished fiction" pile has always been much, much larger than the completed pile.

So why haven't I written as much fiction?
  1. My stock answer for the last few years has been, "I don't understand people," which is a damned lie, but gets me out of an otherwise very long conversation. Specifically, I don't understand romantic love, which is what powers a great deal of human behavior and generally adds "human interest" to a story.
  2. I've become much more interested in nonfiction. I'm better at explaining what is than trying to guess at what might be.
  3. Fiction writing is a very different skill from technical writing, which is where my writing brain spends most of its time. Skills like dialogue, character development, and physical descriptions of human action tend to get pushed off to the side after hours and hours of describing space hardware or coming up with impassioned or rational arguments for keeping the space program sold. In short, I've been out of practice.
  4. I act like a professional when it comes to selling my nonfiction work: that is, I keep writing, I finish what I write, and I keep the work on the market until it is sold. Fiction writing has always been fun, therapeutic, and somehow not as serious. I don't make the time for it, as I do my other extracurricular writing. And so it goes.

So: lots of excuses, no real good reason except that my interests changed and I've become lazy. What the heck would I write about now anyway? I've been prevented from writing about space for pay, even in fiction (I'd bet--I haven't put that one to the test). I could write about the space advocate's life, but I'm not sure I want to write about that; the process often frustrates me. Harlequin Romances are out for the obvious reasons noted above. My mother tried for years to get me to write children's stories. That, too, is a little beyond me because I never thought like a kid (or liked kids), even when I was one. That is a specialized skill that a couple of my friends and family members have, and they will always have an open and willing market for their works. I wish them well, but that is not my bag, man. I could try writing non-space-related science fiction or sociological futuristic fiction; alternate history, maybe, or a future without space, but how depressing would that be? Hm. Maybe historical fiction is a possibility. I've always admired the works of James Clavell and Caleb Carr.

Otherwise, I might just have to accept that my literary future lies with writing a few "Great American Nonfiction Books." They aren't as artsy or "literary," but nonfiction tends to outsell fiction anyway. And anyway, if my fiction is truly therapy, then it's nobody's damn business what I'm writing, is it?

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