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Confessions of a Failed Writer

Writing the novel proves torturous. Each day brings with it wrong turns, deletions, lacks of energy, depression, and the constant threat of destruction. I vomit out a first draft in five months. Turns out, publishers don't give a shit about how much...

by James Nolan
Apr 29 2014, 10:40am

The author at his leaving party, the night before he left Ireland for Germany

October 4, 2010: In Iraq, a journalist for the US-owned Alhurra TV station is assassinated on his way to work by a bomb placed under his car. It is the latest in a long line of over 230 journalists murdered since the US-led invasion of 2003. 99 percent of these killings have gone unpunished. In Iraq journalists are killed with impunity, the bloodstained cost in their quest for truth.

October 4, 2010: On my MacBook in southeast Ireland, I'm tapping out the opening page of what I've decided will be my first novel, having logged the date first in the brown Moleskine notebook that I use for a diary. I'm 23 and have been writing for a grand total of three years. Although probably not qualified to write a novel, I assume that if I sit at my desk long enough—and rub my eyebrows often enough—it'll happen. So far I've written poetry and short stories, and been published in a couple of small journals. Despite this, I fear I'm just a pastiche of other, better writers.

I'm trying to fictionalize my childhood—by which I mean make it more interesting—because the writers I'm obsessed with are mainly autobiographical: Jack Kerouac, Geoff Dyer, Henry Miller, Marcel Proust, James Joyce. I maintain that the only way to express oneself in literature is through first-person narrative and use of the word I. All other styles bore me, and are avoidances, I feel, of the writer's foremost inspiration to write: his insecurity. I also hated my childhood and think writing a book about it will help settle scores and justify the trauma of having lived it.

I am in a long-term relationship with a wonderful girl but, beyond this, have no interest in anything except books. I read day and night, and simply cannot fathom doing something with my life other than writing. Because I lack the enthusiasm for anything else, I'm afraid to take a regular job, because I know self-loathing will eat away at me until I commit suicide. Spending my life doing something that—no matter what—I'll take no pride in just doesn't seem logical.

Planning the book's pacing

I have no money, live with my father, and spend the majority of my days locked in an airless bedroom surrounded by balled-up sheets of paper, empty coffee cups, and books I'm trying not to rip off. It's October 4, 2010, and on June 11, 2011, my girlfriend will graduate from college and go on to have what, I suspect, will be a hugely successful career. She's smart, driven, and everything I'm not, so I must catch up on her by finishing the novel and selling it. The deadline I give myself is obvious: June 11, 2011.

All my friends call me a cynic, but I choose to be optimistic about one thing—I believe all the stories I've read about first novels and what they sell for. Since the late 1990s, it seems $500,000 is normal for a writer perceived to have “hot prospects.” Daniel Mason received $1.2 million for The Piano Tuner, Hari Kunzru got $1 million for The Impressionist, Arthur Phillips pulled $475,000 for Prague, and Jonathan Safran Foer got $500,000 for Everything Is Illuminated—plus a further $925,000 for paperback rights. I've also read that, at 26, Foer's advance drew so much attention that publishers now see them as marketing tools—the bigger the advance, the more books they hope to sell.

I ask myself what the difference between those writers and me is, and though it's obvious—they're either graduates of renowned universities (Harvard, Princeton) or, in Kunzru's case, the editor of fucking WIRED—I delude myself into thinking there isn't any. If it happened to them, it can happen to me, too.

Writing the novel proves torturous. Each day brings with it wrong turns, deletions, lacks of energy, depression, and the constant threat of destruction. How often I dangle the file above the Trash bin, how often I rip up pages and then ruefully piece them back together, how often I stand over it all—the pages, the books, the coffee cups—and ask myself, “What the fuck am I doing?”

I vomit out a first draft in five months, then spend the next few days pacing around my bedroom, not sleeping, coming to the conclusion, finally, that what I have is utter shit. It's a confused and self-congratulatory mess, and if I have anything to say at all, it's buried beneath so many bad jokes and pointless tangents that it's impossible to see. I must edit it ruthlessly.

The first night in Germany, sitting on furniture we borrowed from the landlord

The plan to have the book completed by the time my girlfriend graduates is obviously out the window. She then goes and fucks me up by, two days after graduation, getting a job in Germany. I'm terrified and see everything that can go wrong flash before my eyes in a cavalcade of insecurity—we'll get lost, go broke, be taken for tourists 24/7. I begin a campaign of tears and shouting, one that I abandon after a few days when I realize that. no matter how much of a pussy I am, I couldn't live with myself if I stayed behind or stood in her way. We pack up our shit, four giant suitcases, then there they are skidding towards us on the carousel of some German airport—one of them full with the books I think I need to finish my own.

Money is a real concern now, so I'm forced to take a job teaching English. The pay is good, but I resent doing something with my time other than writing. Our bank account balance builds, we feel more safe and secure, but at heart—now that it's January and I'm waiting on a tram in sub-zero temperatures, the sun barely up in the sky, on my way back to the airport to teach aviation engineers the interminable difference between “due to” and “because of”—I'd rather be back in Ireland, an unemployed, penniless weirdo, if it means I can write more.

In Ireland, I had dreams of fulfilling the writer's myth. Drinking, drugging—I wanted to live in the day and unload it onto the page at night. Like Miller, like Kerouac. The only problem, besides confusing living with drinking and drugging, was that I didn't have the cash to do it. I existed in a cage, forever in doubt as to what this kind of life could bring me. Now, though, I can afford all the drink and drugs I want, except—between teaching and the book—I have no time to do them.

The author on a night out with his girlfriend in Germany

More than ever the novel seems a way out, a push back against what's a real, or realer, state of oppression. I'm a writer only in increments, in the time between one class and the next, in the space between dinner and passing out from exhaustion at 10 PM. I'm less an artist than an empty shirt and tie, hauling around a beaten-up satchel and drilling verbs with businessmen so that they can conduct smoother international deals and improve relations between branches of giant trans-global corporations. I've also read more Mann, Nietzsche, and Böll than all these Germans put together.

Though I try not to be, I'm painfully aware of what has been written before, so many great books throughout history, thus I'm afraid of producing something mediocre. Desperate for originality, I overhaul the novel four or five times, splicing in photographs, quotes from my diary, song lyrics, and extracts from the books littering my desk. I also compose a 50,000-word essay about my novel, novels generally, social media, friends and family, life and death, and the desperation I have to sell it, which I weave into the fictionalized story of my childhood. I am sick of the pretence in contemporary literature and want to break down the wall between reader and writer, exposing the artistic mind and process completely so that a deeper emotional connection can be made. Why hold anything back when, with work taking over my life, it's possible I'll never get the chance to write another book?

Writing it teaches me a lot: restraint, pacing, how to compose a clear sentence, how to stop being so fucking clever. In the summer of 2012—nearly two years after I began—it's almost finished. I feel like my life is moving forwards at last, like a wave is building that I'll ride to inevitable victory. To enhance this feeling even further, my girlfriend then gets a job in Dublin, a better one, to where we'll now be moving. Everything seems perfect—we'll return to Ireland, I'll quit my job, sell the book, and after two years of struggling with it, not to mention a lifetime struggling with everything else, fulfilment can finally spring forth.

I complete it the day after we move back, July 29, 2012, and spend the next two months sending it out to hundreds of agents and any publisher I can find that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. Dropping over a grand on ink, paper, and postage, my days now consist of checking my email, walking to the post office, and scanning the internet for details of any agency that has an address, never mind a respectable client-list.

A random page of manuscript

I receive dozens of rejections but mainly non-replies. Those that do get back to me all say the same thing: love it, just can't see it selling. After a few months back in Ireland, I'm forced to accept that my book won't be bought, for neither $500,000 nor the price of a battered second-hand paperback. I'm devastated. What becomes of me now that my failure's confirmed?

I believe that the book is decent and somewhat original, and if not deserving of the massive advance I crave, then at least of a place on someone's shelf or beneath the leg of a wonky table. I'm in debt to the classics—however, when it comes to contemporary literature, other than with a handful of authors like Dyer, Jonathan Lethem, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner, I'm not that impressed. Scanning the prize lists I see nothing but boring, whimsical, two-dimensional, mostly historical shit.

My book isn't given a real chance, which isn't a shame because, objectively, it's probably shit too. Anyway, better books must get rejected all the time for not seeming commercial. People say that literature is dying, technology being to blame—TV and the internet cutting our attention spans in half—but isn't this explanation kind of insulting to those of us who try to read but can't, who're simply bored by books, who need a deeper emotional connection than the ones that are published are capable of giving us? Maybe literature is dying not because of technology, but because the contemporary strain of it is crap, an industry of hacks writing only what they think their publishers will sell.

The author after a night out in Germany

It's early 2013 and, after a lot of looking out of windows, I'm ready to move on with my life. “Be proud of yourself,” I say, “two years ago you had no expectation you'd even finish it, much less to a standard you're happy with. Despite achieving nothing, maybe you have achieved something: you've learnt how to write a book, albeit an unsellable one.”

A lot changed when I was writing the book. I left behind Ireland, moved to Germany, and then moved back again. But, despite all this, my attitude towards life remained constant. I saw Germany, teaching, and the bitterness I felt for them the same way I saw Ireland, poverty, and the alienation of spending all my days locked in my bedroom. I saw a life that, because it was painful, gave my work credibility. I was optimistic about two things, then: not only did I believe all the stories I'd read about first novels, I actually thought that, when a publisher read my book, they'd take into account how much I'd suffered to write it.

Only with it dead and buried did a change in my attitude finally occur. I accepted, firstly, that it didn't matter if I had suffered—publishers didn't give a shit—and that, secondly, writers like Kunzru and Foer weren't only exceptions to the rule but also holders of credentials that the term “first-time novelist” didn't necessarily imply. Writers without reputations or educations from renowned universities simply weren't going to be gambled on except in extraordinary circumstances. It was paramount, then, that I devised a solid plan so that, when my next book came across a publisher's desk, they would already know who I was.

What was this plan? To write articles like this one and publish them on the internet.

April 29, 2014: My next book is halfway done.

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