Two days ago, my friend sent me the final draft of a novel she's been working on for the past six months. Well, I've read it. I know she's waiting for feedback, but I have no idea what to say to her.
My friend has always identified herself as a writer, even though her output over the past 25 years has been scanty and her work has never been published. She has real talent, but she lacks discipline and is acutely sensitive to criticism. While her latest work contains many passages of exceptional beauty, on the whole it's a dense bramble of twisted, thorny sentences -- impenetrable. And bloodless: The characters never come to life, and the scenes come across as studied, stilted tableaux tricked up with verbal filigree.
I can't tell her what I really think of her work -- it would hurt her too much. In the past, I have responded with vague praise ("wonderful!", "remarkable!"), and have cited particular passages that I liked. But when I do that, I know I'm not taking her seriously as a writer, and she wants to be taken seriously. Her ego is protected by a thick layer of arrogance (teachers, mentors and editors have nothing to offer her), and I'm afraid that if I give her an honest assessment she would push me away for good.
What is my duty here? I am not a writer, Cary, but you are -- how can I help my friend without hurting her? And what should I say about her novel? I would be grateful for any insights you can provide.
A Writer's Friend
Dear Writer's Friend,
I was walking on the beach this morning thinking about your question and I wrote the following. I offer it as a sacrifice.
Johnny Hardmuth walked up the steps/ threw down the novel he was reading/ shut off the light and closed his eyes/ put the gun to his head/ started the car/ slammed the door/ stormed out of the room. The house/ floor/ wall/ car/ narrative shook/ quavered/ rattled as he walked/ stomped/ fell/ pulled the trigger.
"I'm a writer," he said to himself, "not a surgeon/ general practitioner/ gun slinger/ opera singer/ private detective/ Saab mechanic/ literary critic/ psychotherapist!"
The letter had come that morning/ evening/ afternoon/ same day. It said she was desperate. She needed help. It was her gambling debts again. It was her mother's back. It was cancer. It was her tab at 7-Eleven. It was her editor at Scribner's. It was the mob. It was her tough boyfriend who wore the eye patch. It was her eczema. It was Poets & Writers Magazine. It was the IRS. It was Salon.com. It was her health insurance. It was Harvard. It was her sister. It was her attitude.
He crumpled up the letter. He threw the letter into the fire. He read the letter again. He tore the letter into little pieces and dropped them on the floor. He made the letter into a paper airplane and sailed it across the room. He balled up the paper and threw it at his guest. He balled it up and ate it. He stuffed it down his pants. He uncrumpled it and spread it out across his desk and wrote three words on it.
The three words were "I can't write." The three words were "I need money." The three words were "Suck my dick." The three words were "Say that again?" The three words were "I can't remember." The three words were "She needs help."
She needed help. That was right. She needed help and fast. No, that wasn't true. She needed help like the Indians needed blankets. No, it was true. She needed help. She needed help like Custer needed help only she wouldn't ask for it. No, she didn't. Yes, she did. No, maybe she needed help. Maybe she didn't. That was the way the world was.
He strapped on his dental tools. He switched on the fuel pump. He opened the window and jumped. He got out his hedge clippers. He made a phone call. He found her address where she had scribbled it on a piece of paper at that chain restaurant whose name he could never remember. Why couldn't he remember?
He started the engine of his small plane. His butler, Servio, was passed out in the luggage compartment. His goggles, made by Avionics, Inc., were foggy. His head, already damaged by a night of drinking, was aching. His feet, tired from walking, hurt. His sweater vest, open at the top, was drooping. His beard, not yet shaven, began to itch. His belt, cinched but not buckled, chafed. His eyes, not yet accustomed to daylight on planet Earth, burned. His cock, tumescent and bulbous, throbbed. The engine, 40-plus cylinders in all, whined. His pocket protector, a gift from the mayor, stiffened at the sound. His expectations, piqued by the latest evidence, sharpened. His eyes, burning, scanned the horizon. His cock, now emitting discharge, whined. His sweater vest, hurt by last night's comments, sulked. His hands, ready and able, clenched.
The runway fell away. He was aloft.
Her house was only a short way down the coast. He could see her in the backyard from this altitude, waving her manuscript. He set the plane down right in her backyard. He was an expert pilot, trained in Afghanistan during the war, hardened to a diamond finish, seasoned, wizened, burnished, filigreed, determined, eager, Sansabelt, whimsical but unshaven, dirty-minded when needed. She loved him. She would always love him. He brought her the paper.
She waved the manuscript in his face. "Where's my goddamned money?!" she shouted, and threw her drink in his face. He tore off his aviator's helmet and threw it at the dog. It bounced off the dog and landed on the statue of Edgar Allan Poe that she had bought at a garage sale back in 1983 when it looked like she had a shot at the big time. He didn't give a fuck. All he wanted was her cock. He had lost all his illusions in the war. He couldn't see straight anymore. He didn't know if she was male or female but she was all woman to him. He took her in his arms.
"It's gorgeous," he said. "It's the best thing you've ever written."
"Take me," she said. "I'm ripe."
"What else can I say?" he asked. "All I know is, you're peaches."
"I'm peaches," she said. "Fly me."
We can write well or badly, we can write quickly, we can write in ridiculous fashion, we can say things that make no sense at all, we can have fun and we can be ready for the most withering of criticism, all in the interest of letting go of our attachment to the idea of a fixed literary standard and a fixed idea of good and bad prose. If we look at literature as a kind of music, we can accept the proposition that each of us has at his disposal an infinite number of sounds, and we are free to use them any way we like. We can let sounds and words occur without judgment.
So let's consider your questions. You ask what is your duty, and how you can help your friend without hurting her, and what you should say about her novel.
If I were you I would politely refuse to say anything about her novel. I would refuse to comment on it. For years I have had a policy that I mostly do not comment on people's work. I just don't. The medium of "commenting" is too freighted with meaning. It's a rigged system. It's a trick question. There is too much hunger associated with the act of writing. You never know what you're walking into.
On the other hand, I have found a way of interacting with writers that I dearly love. I do conduct writing workshops that follow a clear method that allows people to develop their style in their own way. It is the Amherst Writers and Artists method, and there are many workshops around the world that use it.
I do not see why we should not have the freedom to simply encounter work, take from it what we want, have an experience of it, and be done with it. Why do we have to "comment"?
What is wrong with saying that? She might say, But I just want to know what you thought. To which you might say, Well, as I said, I do not comment on people's work, especially the work of my friends.
After a while I think she will give up asking and grant you the freedom you are asking for. And that is what you are doing, really: You are asking to be released from a troubling, unspoken obligation.
Your refusal may actually open up dialogue. Oddly enough, it creates a safe space. By refusing to comment on the work you show the work some respect; you allow the work to just be. This is a powerful thing. Sometimes the one thing a writer cannot do is let his or her work just be. If the work is too tied to unresolved ego needs, one can sense that in the work: One senses that the work is petitioning unseen judges. But it is not good to say these things because she is not asking for therapy.
Refusing to comment on the work opens up other areas that may be present for her today. She might begin talking about what she wants. She may be frustrated in her work and looking for direction. She may just need to talk. So I think we often do people a favor when we refuse to "comment on their work."
Try that. See how that goes.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.