I finished drafting a book today. I don’t even want to say which book, in terms of how many it’s been. Due to a combination of perfectionism, OCD, my inability to write short stories, and the fact that when you refuse to seek out mentors, it takes a long time to get good — I didn’t debut until I was 35.
And I think that was my eighth book. Let’s see. Two in college (boats/ghosts; television production/lesbians/ghosts). One deep OCD project that I drafted several times, start to finish, in my early twenties (planes/island bunkers/alternate dimensions and slipstream/probably ghosts, who knows). One fan novel I wrote during my first stint in grad school (anime). One short novel which redid the fanfic as an arty 50K-word prose poem (Great Detective deconstruction; rejected by a small press “although we love it” because it was unmarketable and so was I). Another short novel (Shakespeare/doomed space colony/tragic armies/nuns/wheat).
———LINE OF DEMARCATION; AT THIS POINT, I GOT GOOD———
COMES NOW THE DEFENDANT Self-Portrait With Wound, the book of my heart, which I have plans to rewrite this year (portrait artists/trans people/suspended animation/gay, sad/got me an agent/encouraging personal rejections/never sold). Then a pick-and-mix of clones and shapeshifters that only my brother liked (although I pirated parts of it for the project I just finished) —
So delighting, it will run for fifty years!
— After that, The Breath of the Sun (my actual debut; mountains/magic/PTSD). And after that, a novella which remains, as I genteelly put it, “on infinite submission” (wizard college/PTSD). From there, we pivot to an attempt at an epic (trans people/nursing/a surprisingly inaccurate vision of what an aging ER nurse’s life might be like in the summer of 2020 — this book was recently declared a federal disaster area), and finally, finally, finally, this short vampire/archivist/trans romance, The Donor, which I finished today, and about which I feel great. Number twelve. NUMBER TWELVE. Kill me.
Obviously, I’m more embarrassed than proud about being this prolific. It’s a big dry orange from which to squeeze one small-press debut, albeit one that won a major award. (If you want to know if my Lambda Literary Award encourages me, or alternatively whether it haunts me, a dingy memento of lost potential, like the mummy they found in Dorian Corey’s closet, let me tell you: no, this poor soul looks incredible on my bookcase, and I think of it every time someone is an asshole to me on the street.) To have written one unpublished book may be regarded as a misfortune. To have written a dozen may be regarded as twelve misfortunes.
What did these books die of? I will tell you.
- Bad, then: also bad
- This book was good, and in fact it still has stans, but it was a fan novel, QED
- Agentable, but unsaleable
- Tiny Tim did NOT die
- Potentially good, but not yet good
- Schrodinger’s Cat
- ??? Profit!
Despite my embarrassment at having written so many bad or unsaleable books, I never cease to remind people that I’ve written a lot of books, because I feel a need to account for my time. It’s not the Twitter braggadocio of explaining that writers have to fail may times before they succeed, because I don’t consider these books failures. Each one was an attempt to channel one of my obsessions into a tube of cake frosting and, thence, to a perfect rosette.
Each time, I tried. Each time, I got somewhere that wasn’t success and wasn’t failure, but a glitchy world inside of me that I never otherwise thought about. Each time a new book lifted me up into that messy maze, I figured out its shape a little better, until finally I could write books that replicated its labyrinthine pleasures while also having an entrance, an exit, and a monster.
And I wouldn’t change the past, if I’m honest. If I hadn’t written the fan novel, I would never have learned to marry the outrageous hunger of my fan work to the empty feasty prose of my literary work, which is the reason my early stuff wasn’t good. If I’d sought mentors, I might have found bad ones. In fact, I found enough bad ones without seeking them, which is why I didn’t seek any more (that, and pride, and a bitter independence which I still cherish as the source of all my originality, and being nuts). If I’d written short stories and developed myself as a literary writer, I still wouldn’t have gotten good at the short story, a form I do not enjoy. If I hadn’t been a perfectionist, I would have gotten bored.
Special exception: life-to-live-over, I would have found a functioning chemical treatment for my OCD sooner. OCD made me reject bad books before I had a chance to make them good (because they were flawed in part, which meant they were ruined in toto). It also made me reject good work because I would suddenly realize that it was somehow politically bankrupt and would ruin my life if published. OCD wasted my time. The rest of these mistakes, though they’ve resulted in a lot of blanks where books should have been, were mistakes I’d make again.