My novel Elders is now nine months old: it still cries a lot, it wobbles on its feet, it is bald and broad-cheeked and looks a little like my grandfather.
And in fact, and in one sense, it is quite old.
Its gestation was four years long, or maybe five, or sometimes I say six. The thing about a novel is that it begins almost despite you, imperceptibly. You’re twenty-five years old, you’re a newborn yourself, a new MFA student at a new MFA program. You’re at once frightened and extremely cocksure and you know the kind of writer you are, the kind of writer you’re going to be, and the kind of writer you’re not going to be.
You’re a writer of ideas, let’s say, a fast writer, a fluid writer, and you’re going to stay that way. And what you’re not going to be is a writer who can in any way be conflated with or grouped by his Mormonism.
Then one day you’re assigned an exercise by a kind but stern teacher-critic. Quickly, because you’re on a deadline, you reach for material you know well—some scenes and images from your Mormon mission several years earlier. The teacher praises the exercise; you respond with more of them, ever the earnest Pavlovian.
One day the exercises have coalesced into a number of linked stories. On another day the stories have cobbled together into a kind of novel, and it hasn’t taken too long, and now you’re done. You’re impressed with yourself. Then another day comes when the stern teacher-critic speaks coolly of your manuscript, much too coolly, you think.
She says to you, “It’s about more than showing people how smart you are.” She says, “You don’t need that part,” and the part she means is fully half of your novel. She says, “I’m telling you now, and telling it straight, because the cement of your draft is a lot wetter than you may think.”
Of course I hated that idea. I wanted to be done.
It took me another two, three years—sometimes I say four—before I really was, and by then all I cared about was the book itself. Not my ego, not my idea of myself as a writer—just the product.
I once told a friend how I felt that writing a novel was a spiritual exercise. She said, “Just one second while I barf into my shoes.”
Well, but I meant it, although perhaps in a darker, more Calvinistic sense than she imagined. The successive drafts of my novel, and the tough reads from instructors and friends, had taught me that I was a fallen and deeply imperfect writer. All that mattered anymore was the writing, the thing itself.
That’s the great insight I took from my writing teachers, and, like the novel that owes so much to them, it was years in coming. I’m glad I waited for it.
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About the Author
RYAN MCILVAIN grew up in the Mormon Church and resigned his membership in his mid-twenties. His writing has appeared in many journals, including The Paris Review. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles.