08/07/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Novels Become Assassins


This essay is adapted from an original blog post: "When Novels Become Assassins."

I nearly died just after writing the first draft of my second novel. The story is unnerving, possibly amoral, anarchic, and, certainly, nihilistic as hell -- but it still tries to say life is a magnificent and magical journey. I'm partially convinced that this dualism was working to assassinate me -- the messenger -- from the moment I conceived it.

I struggled for two years to bring the whole 438-page draft into existence. Beginning with writing the first paragraph on a whim in 2002 (a guy gets offered $300 by a neighbor to have sex with her), over the next two years I battled depression, a growing addiction to alcohol, struggles in my marriage, sexual insecurity, and a weird sort of self-centered lunacy that you really have to call psycho-narcissism. On top of all that, every few months or so I just felt really crappy. I would run a low-grade fever for a few days and I had this strange pain in my gut that my doctor couldn't figure out.

Once I'd read through that first draft, I absolutely knew something very ugly was going to happen to me. The sense of doom I felt was overwhelming. A few weeks later I began what became a summer in and out of the hospital. It took nearly a year after that to recover.

Is it possible for a novel (or a story of any kind) to attempt to assassinate its author? More to the point, is it possible that writers leave themselves open to self-destruction in general because they go so far into the unconscious mind and try their hand at the black magic of dredging weird myths and stilted meaning out of that thing that is probably only supposed to be the engine for normal human dreams and nightmares?

In a blog post for The New York Review of Books called "Writing to Death," Tim Parks kind of gets at this dilemma. Good fiction is often all about an author trying to tell a story that is caught between two moral extremes. Writers must work hard to synthesize these extremes into a more vital truth. Parks writes: many of the writers I have looked at seem permanently torn between irreconcilable positions, something that seems to feed that famous ambiguity literary critics so much admire; eventually, the dilemma driving the work either leads to death, or is neutralized in a way that prolongs life but dulls the writing.

An important question here, of course, is motive. Why would stories that writers dredge out of themselves want to kill their creators? Do writers just go too far giving away secrets that should remain hidden from the people of the world? Does the story as the vehicle of the unconscious mind fall in love with the writer and develop the desire to absorb said writer into its murky universe?

Norman Mailer wrote in his book The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing:

Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not. If so, it will have deeper notions about death than we do. ...the unconscious can feel exploited by the push of the novelist to extract so much of his [or her] product from its resources.

Maybe the definition of success for a novelist is that somehow they buy themselves enough time to actually make a name for themselves. Or maybe the basis of their success is a strong enough will and a hearty enough constitution to do battle with their work, having sufficient strength of character and intellect to manage time to find a loving agent and a competent publishing house to make them famous.

Most of us aren't so lucky, though. And now, with our electronic universe we usually don't even leave behind manuscripts in drawers. Millions of unacknowledged words twist noiselessly inside our laptops, inevitably recycled or wiped clean after we die, given to nieces or neighbors as a noble gesture. We die and no one reads a thing we have on our laptops -- the modern dilemma of being a tree that falls alone in the forest.

It took them a month to diagnose my situation. I had a hidden cyst in my abdominal cavity as big as my fist. They eventually went in and excised 10-inches of my colon. I'd lost nearly 30 pounds by the time they did that. I'd been nourishing myself on a liquid diet of Ensure for a month while they drained my cyst down to a reasonable level for surgery. Even now I want to eat everything on the table every night at dinner. Bacon is my passion. I put the 30-pounds back on...and then another 25 or so for good measure over the years. Two days after my surgery, a doctor was checking me over at 3:00 in the morning. He said, "You know, you're lucky. Another day or two and that cyst would have burst. You'd have been dead in a matter of hours. Sepsis is no way to go."

To close, let me say this: the whole nightmare I went through really pisses me off. That's one reason I keep writing out on the edge the way I do. I hate anyone who tries to censor me, especially my own mind and my own creations. If my stories are going to try to kill me, then so be it. I ain't backing down.

Writing should, indeed, be a spooky art. Playing with the imagination is not for sissies. I do have this advice for young writers, though: watch the booze; if you must smoke, just do it when you're creating; give your love to your family and friends 110% when you're not writing; see your doctor regularly; don't get tuberculosis; exercise every day; and, for goodness sake, eat both kinds of fiber with every meal.