How Fiction Ruined My Life

Note: I originally published this rather bitter essay about my hilarious lack of talent as a fiction writer in Medium. I had never published in Medium before, felt it was perfect for my work, pushed play and sat back waiting for the world to change. It didn’t. Three people read it; I know this because Medium, unfortunately, counts. I offer it here because I’m confident it will be seen by more than three bots. Enjoy.

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I am the worst fiction writer in the world. No, I am not making this up. I couldn’t if I wanted to — I’m incapable of making anything up.

This sad situation is not due to laziness. I put in my ten thousand hours, my workshops and night classes and day classes and drafts; my editors hired and martyred and shamed into feedback; my competitions and applications and plaintive pitch notes and paper — scaffolds and dumpsters of paper thudding onto a dozen desks in a half-dozen states, crushing haulers, filling zip drives, hurtling off into the library of forgotten words.

I do not blame a bad education. I do not blame my parents. They wanted me to be a writer; at least one of them did, at times. I can not blame a lack of confidence or dyslexia or addiction or myopia or a broken social scene or the hard and brutal scythe of luck, which seemed to like me fine. I got every break in the book, but there was a problem

That book was fiction. It was written by me. And it sucked.

I am a wonderful reader; a gifted reader. I will linger over an effect in, say, Nabokov or Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives — eclectic tastes — and think, “Wow. Look at that.” I’ll read the Golden Age mysteries of Christie or Carr, the relentless final chapter of Ulysses, the invention of The Island of Doctor Moreau — and go blank in the face, flooded up to my eyes with blue envy.

Wow. Look at that. I can do it. I can do it, too.

There was never a time when I did not want to be a novelist, a playwrite, a hipster L.A. showrunner with a staff of lesser writers, chunking out a storyline, sawing out a plot. Desire, I had. Tenacity — too much. Solitude — oh, boy. But there was a problem; there was always a problem.

I was so bad at fiction I did not know that I was bad.

In fact, I see now that my own epic optimism about my fiction-writing skills was itself proof that they didn’t exist. It is a well-attested psychological phenomenon, one with a name. I discovered it too late to make a difference, but I share it now so you can quit while you are young. It is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it describes a howlingly tragic phenomenon wherein people who suck at something don’t know they suck because their own suckiness itself makes them unable to see their own suckitude.

Wow. Talk about irony. A disease whose symptom is its own invisibility. Don’t linger here. It’s actually a very, very funny phenomenon unless you happened to discover, about two months ago, that it took a whole honking hunk of your so-called life out behind a shed somewhere and shot it.

Self-knowledge is wonderful, but not when it comes too late. Neither Dunning nor Kruger and a busload of their Cornell University grad students will never be able to give me back those years of my life, my glorious time, when I should have been whittling myself into a conscious contributor, a professional fellow in a black suit and Tesla, a man with some heft in the world — a dry wit who does something, adds a certain personal competence to our collective human project, draws an honest breath — and not what I am: a delusional non-novelist and non-screenwriter, some schmuck with a Lenovo.

I am not alone. You know this: I am not alone. The world is filling up with atrocious artistic abortions and witless videos and literary loogies that should be lying on a slab somewhere. But most of these things are committed by kids, twentysomethings, mammals in the midst of growing up. “There is a kind of lambent tragedy that occurs in too many young men,” said Edmund Wilson, “who mistake a youthful passion poured out in poetry for a real call to the art.” That’s me.

As I say, I’m not alone, but I am willing to bet that in the annals of failure I rank pretty well. How can I say this? Imagine a ratio — we’ll call it the Rat Ratio — that divides the sum total of all signals of success (however tiny) by the total amount of honest effort put into that success. Nobody — not Charles Dickens, not Stephen King — makes it all the way to one. That would mean every tap-tap of effort yield a tap-tap of success. No life I know goes like that. Everyone hits a pocket of air. Energetic bad writers have low numbers, sometimes very low. My ratio is lower than that. It is zero.

What? It is my pained duty to report that, over two decades of trying and trying again, churning out (at last count) a dozen unpublished novels, uncounted poems and short stories, at least two dozen crapulous screenplays and pilots and spec episodes for television programs now dead or dying — during year upon year of studious, near-psychotic endeavour — I never received a single word of encouragement. Not one.

Zero divided by a google is still zero. That’s the sum total of my success as a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and television staff member. Zero. Tell me now that I am flattering myself, that my failure is not as impressive as I claim. No, I am not; and yes, yes, it is.

I am rock-solid in this statement, at least: I am utterly, entirely, completely, totally and convincingly without a shred of talent as a storyteller.

The Problem of Storytelling

That’s the problem, of course: storytelling. Making things up. Putting one made-up thing after another in a way that creates a sense of wonder, a logical flow. Don’t tell me about story structure: I know the Hero’s Journey. I know about the rise and fall of action at the end of an act. I know about acts. I watched the hundred best movies of all time, plotted them down to the minute, distilled their essence into a template, pressure-tested the template against new hits and wrote my own version of the Perfect Screenplay.

But there was only one problem. I wrote it. And it sucked.

“Every suburban sewing circle has one,” says William Goldman — who, unlike me, is a natural storyteller — “someone who can tell a story around a table and keep everyone waiting to see how it turns out.” He is certainly right about this: it’s not a rare gift. My wife can tell stories with a rising swell and moments of hilarity and suspense. So could a guy named Aki in the ad agency where I worked measuring the impact of campaigns. Great stories, riveting works. They do not call themselves writers. I do. The most common reaction to a story I tell out in the plain air is a desperate silence and, suddenly, “What?!

I’m confusing. I confuse myself. I don’t have a cumulative style — you know, how a story unreels like a soft desert sunrise, slowly at first but with light dabbed on at intervals until the scene is ablaze . . . and then they appear, a hat and a leathery pinpoint, shots, a violent chase . . . changes in the texture of sand as the body falls and it turns out, unbelievably, to be . . . .

Don’t ask me. I’m the last guy who knows who should turn up in a story and where to keep the beat beating. I can’t do suspense. I can’t do drama, or comic narrative, or action-adventure or horror or anything at all. How do I know this? Because I’ve tried them, tried them all. And I suck.

“Keep trying,” they told me, all my pained readers. “Nobody gets it right at first.”

And: “Why don’t you put it away for a while and come back to it?” (Which is like locking a crazy cat up in a closet, hoping to improve its personality.)

And, later: “Maybe you should try a different type of writing. Thrillers are really big now.”

Thrillers are big. So is horror and suspense and literature and romance and fantasy and basically anything that has the absolute non-negotiable element of everything that is big then or now or ever until time stops and we all go the way of all life: the one true thing. A riveting story. Told by somebody who knows how to tell a story.

Talent exists, people. It is not a game. Some people have it, and some people don’t.

Don’t encourage assholes like me. Yes, a craft takes time, and it is a crime to step too hard on the young. But a forty-five year old schlemiel injecting his fifth semi-autobiographical piece of rancid vomit from a word processor into your life must be kindly, but decisively, stopped. If kindness doesn’t work, take a firmer stand. Do not relent. Do not say “Time takes time,” and, “It’s just one agent’s opinion,” and, “The market’s weird right now.”

The market’s always weird. Time takes time but does not make miracles. People who suck long enough and hard enough at something will always, always suck. It is the law of fiction physics: there is no path from nowhere to good. There is no water rising from an empty well. It just sits there, like your relatives, staring at you single-eyed until you wise up someday and leave.

We are not happy, we people with my kind of dream. I’m not exactly sure why we go on. At first it’s a reasonable sense we can get better, or are overlooked. With enough rejection, we become angry. A mature reaction to non-stop failure is to try a different approach, find another dream. Right? But too many of us have a bulldog tendency, a fighting spirit that is wonderful in war and if we’re protecting an injury or a child or a venture capital-backed start-up ahead of its time.

In a person who just plain can’t do something, tenacity is not a virtue. It is a vice.

Obvious Awfulness of the Roller Coaster

At this point, you’re wondering what I actually wrote not at all. You don’t care. Nobody cares or ever did but I have a certain pride now — with the benefit of a horrible hindsight — in the obvious awfulness of my work, my ideas. How could I have thought they were contenders? How could I have embarrassed myself like that?

I once wrote a screenplay called Roller Coaster. Stay with me. We’re in a theme park kind of like DisneyWorld. A bunch of randoms get onto a roller coaster. Ten minutes in — yes, I know about the Inciting Incident; I took Story Structure from Robert McKee himself, bros — ten minutes in, there’s a problem. Suspicious characters appear and — BAM! — terrorists have taken control of the park. They occupy the control room . . . and decide to keep the roller coaster going, over and over again, without stopping, until their evil demands are met. Of course, there’s an intrepid undercover cop with a troubled past on the roller coaster as it hurtles around and around (and around and around) . . . and, somehow, he saves everyone without getting sick on the camera.

Genius? Nobody bought that one. I showed it to a friend of mine from college who literally acquired screenplays for a major studio — see, I did not have bad luck in life — and he said, “Marty, I’d like to help you, but this is not a screenplay. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Try again.”

Try again. I wrote a kind of alternative-universe script in which women are on top and men are treated like objects, a super-sexist upside-down world, and I called it Living Doll. It was set in the region of advertising, and I had great fun making the women fat and old and sloppy and the men obsessed with aging and their looks and babies and . . . there’s a scrappy (boy) secretary who’s got a great idea and his (woman) boss takes credit for it and . . . well, if you’re thinking, “Hello, Working Girl!” here, you’re more than half right. I borrowed plots because I could not think of them myself.

My studio friend didn’t call me back on that one. Now that I think about it, I haven’t talked to him since. Try again. Having an analytical mind, I came up with explanations for my failures, like some drunk trying to figure out why he keeps going waking up in handcuffs. I was missing my strengths. What was needed was a more ambitious approach.

So I settled in and over two long years that stretched back into the origin of the universe and outward to its end — or so it seemed — I created a 120,000 word novel about Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, late 19th century railroad barrons, set in 1876 in that greatest of fictional cities, old-time New York. Sounds interesting, right? I read dozens of books about the period, including an encyclopedic tourist guidebook published in 1872 called The Sights and Sounds of New York — a riveting work, actually, showing how little the place has changed over the years — drew maps, dove into the archives of the New York Times (which was a right-wing rag then) without coming up for weeks on end . . . accumulated a meticulous record of clothing, streetcars, etiquette, food (the “Hamburg steak” was a new meme), commute times (averaging one hour, as now), policing, Wall Street . . . and wrote a story.

By this time, I had a literary agent; a respected young man with good taste. (He did not sign me for my fiction, of course; I also wrote non-fiction that was, apparently, better.) He read it and offered advice. I rewrote it. He read it and offered more advice. I rewrote it again.

He called me. This call, I will never forget. I had broken my foot in the Uppercut Boxing Gym on New Year’s Eve and was staring out on my city of exile, Minneapolis, where I’d retreated (with my sainted wife, a Minnesotan) to work in advertising analytics and wonder why my fiction-writing dream wasn’t working for me yet . . . .

“Marty,” he said, “I have to be honest.”

“Mmm.”

“Why don’t you put this aside. It’s not happening. You tried three times and it’s not –“

“But, but –“

“Or you could hire someone to help you, really get in there, work with the — you know — the words.”

“You mean, an editor? I thought you –“

“No, a coach, a — someone to really get in there and –“

“You mean, a writer? You want me to hire a writer to write my book?”

You can imagine that — to a writer — the advice to hire a writer to write the writing comes as rather a splash of cold juice.

Agents have my respect. They’re dealing with the most immature people in the world at their most vulnerable, on the topic about which they are blind and defensive by nature. To say I sobbed for weeks over this conversation would be to state the obvious, and all that poor kid did was tell me the truth.

My novel sucked. It blew chunks. It was called The Strategem and somebody should have put it in a leaded sink and burned it, scrubbing out the residue with bleach.

Try again. So perhaps historical fiction was not my forte. Certainly, there are easier forms. Write what you read. More terrible advice from the orphan train of writers’ workshops. Great readers do not make great writers; great readers make great book reviewers.

Minnesota Mediocre

Minneapolis has a lot of faults but one thing it does really well is nurture and encourage bad art. It has a thriving community called The Loft that is like a hatchery for terrible poetry and execrable prose. Hot off my Strategem stink bomb, I decided what I needed was a supportive artistic community, one with a lively give-and-take of encouragement and praise, a prop in the midst of my (temporary) disappointments. You see where this is going. I take a class. Two volunteers for next week? — I’m in! I write a story called “The Ranch” based on a trip I took with my long-suffering to a spa called Canyon Ranch in the Berkshire Mountains, a binge I felt I needed to help me get over the failure of my — at this point, I think it was still the historical thing — and it was the worst week of my life. Add to the post-operative environment and food that was all but literally twigs, bark and berries — the tick-tick of ruinous bills racking up by the moment — add to that my wife’s gentle suggestion that we take, um, a marriage workshop, you know, while we’re here . . .

It was okay. She cleared the air. I took it manfully. Once they released us, it occurred to me that Canyon Ranch was a great setting for a story about mind games, out-of-control therapists trying weird experiments on touchy couples drained of hope. That was “The Ranch.” I emailed it to the class with an ominous pride.

“I don’t get it,” they said, as one voice. “What’s going on here?”

“You know,” said the teacher, a local small-press novelist, “you might want to start over with this one.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Start fresh. Rethink the concept.”

“You mean, throw it away?”

Throw it away. Burn it. Flush it. Rid the biosphere of this fictional homunculus that has wasted our time and yours and subtracted minutes from the people for no reason but the gratification of some screwy ache on the part of a now middle-aged man to chase a dream like a beloved Bernese mountain dog across a glorious field of high wheat that’s on fire — the field is on fire — and nobody’s getting out of this thing alive.

I quit the class. I should have stayed. I’m a good reader, as I’ve said, and my comments on other people’s stuff can be useful. I’ll never write a good story, but I know one when I see it. When the Greek philosopher Thales was asked what was difficult he said, “To know yourself.” And what was easy? “To advise another.”

So it goes. I was not done yet; not quite yet. The past three years I committed three complete novel-length objects, and it will tell you just how near death the enterprise had become by this late date when I admit that two of these objects were cat mysteries. Say what? You read that right: cat mysteries. Mysteries featuring felines as intrepid crime-solvers. Not for kids: for adults.

It’s a real genre, one I like. The first four novels by the late Lilian Jackson Braun are favorites. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, girls.

Cat mystery #1 was awful, so ghastly no one but me (and my cat) will ever see it, but the second wasn’t worse. I called it I, Cat! with a flourish of neo-noir silliness, actually hired an editor to help me out, sent it off to the boy agent in New York with head high.

“It just doesn’t work,” he wrote me in an email. “Let’s talk about it.”

We didn’t. I let him go and went on a religious retreat and prayed for an answer, and I’m thinking there is some divine art at work in the answer I got as though spoken to my soul itself.

“It’s time to stop,” It said. And so I did.

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