My new novel is floundering. Staggering, lurching, possibly going down for the third time. I spend four hours at the computer every morning with Code Blue equipment. I think in the next few days it will either resuscitate or flat-line. Part of the problem is that I'm trying to juggle a whole lot of background for a future America plus three (maybe four) points of view, so..
But I don't want to write just now about my novelistic difficulties. I want to write about Jane Smiley's. She's the author of the wonderful A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear in the American Midwest, which won the 1992 Pulitzer. I have read that book three times. Now I'm reading her non-fiction 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I received for Christmas. Smiley is erudite without being pretentious and has many interesting things to say about the novel form. What has caught my attention, however, is her unusual way of getting herself unstuck.
She was struggling with the writing of her novel Good Faith, and it was not going well. In her own words:
"One day I waited for inspiration, got some, went off in a completely different direction, then had second thoughts the next day and tried something else new. This was a symptom indeed, a symptom that I didn't know what in the world I was doing, and it was way too late in the game for that. My heart sank. No, my flesh turned to ice. No, my eyes popped out of my head. No, my stomach churned. No, all I did was close the file on my computer and walk away. But that was very bad."
What she decided to do to get back on track was -- to read 100 novels. A hundred! They ranged from Fielding to Faulkner to McEwan. Since I haven't finished Smiley's book, I don't yet know how this experiment turned out as a spur to writing her own novel. But....maybe I should read instead of write this thing of mine?
Of course, I am reading....Jane Smiley.