When I was in my early 20s, I started to tell people that I wanted to be a novelist. Many would respond with something like, “Oh, writing the Great American novel?” Yes, I’d say, naively. I thought it would be awesome to have my name in conversation with the literary greats—Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, etc.,…and me. Graduate students in literature across the country would analyze my works for their theses and dissertations. I could be Toni’s BFF. I thought that was what writers were supposed to do: aspire to literary greatness, work on penning the Great American Novel, and dream of having tea with Toni. But the more I wrote, the more my perspective started to change.
I started noticing that I was developing a voice, and that voice wasn’t “literary.” It wasn’t very sophisticated, nor polished, nor grand. The vocabulary used didn’t require a dictionary. The descriptions didn’t drip in eloquence for pages and pages. Of course there are many exceptions for Great American Novels that don’t adhere to those criteria, but it’s what I noticed for the majority of them. I started to panic. The differences between the work of the greats and my far-from-great work were vast. I couldn’t write the Great American Novel. Perhaps I should stop.
Even with that doubt, I couldn’t stop writing. Characters still formed in my mind. Conversations still flowed in waves. Writing was involuntary, a compulsion. Not writing meant that something was missing in my life—not writing meant sometimes I’d get a little cranky. The act of not writing wasn’t an option.
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I decided to accept my writing “limitations.” I would write just to write. I would take classes, try to get better and enjoy the craft. I would read more books that weren’t of the Great American Novel ilk. Many of them, I would enjoy, as flawed and imperfect as they were. (I’m flawed and imperfect, too, aren’t I?) Those novels were attainable. They inspired me. Those books made me want to keep writing. If I can fall in love with, and be motived by, a less-than-Great American novel, maybe someone will feel the same way about mine.
What about you? How do you feel about writing the Great American Novel?