Longreads Guest Pick: Meaghan O’Connell on Ted Thompson and the Making of a Novel
Meaghan O’Connell is the editor-in-chief of meaghano.com:
“I regard novel-writing with a heady combination of awe and dread, so when debut novelist Ted Thompson wrote about his book’s eight (eight!) year journey to completion last week, I opened it in a tab and walked away from my desk immediately. ‘The Evolution of a First Novel’ is as fascinating as it is generous, and takes us along as his book about a retired Connecticut divorcee went from plausible deniability, to short story, to MFA application, to self-doubt, despair, long dog walks, and longer grant applications. The story ends as all real stories should, with an air of peaceful resignation and a book deal. The people mentioned (Thompson most of all, I suppose) seem to be from a bygone literary era, but aren’t—or so we’ll keep hoping. I took from it what is either a reminder, a threat, or a revelation, depending: that people will forgive you when you get in your own way, and make way for you when you get out of it.
Okay my bio looks a little more sad than funny here — but if you haven’t already, check out Ted’s post about his novel, which Longreads let me blurb for their newsletter.
10:56 am • 29 April 2013 • 33 notes
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Tonight is my first Sunday without a job to go to tomorrow in awhile. I really like it. In fact, this whole weekend, while being nothing out of the ordinary, has been wonderful.
I had a really good job that I think shaped me into a full adult human with mad skillz, a fire within me, and a new seriousness I know is important. Knowing when to turn these things on and off will be, I imagine, something I never truly master (whether or not I want to is still up for discussion).
The past few weeks have felt like a big breakup, like graduating college, or moving away, or getting a divorce, or going on a permanent vacation. The whole thing has been complicated and I am walking away from it without ever solving it, or winning, or “being right.” Because oh boy have I argued about this in my head a lot but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because it’s not what I want, however enthralling I find, and found, all of it. However engaging and difficult and thrilling and important and FUN I know it to be. No matter how much I straight up adore most of the people I worked with, it never will be how I want to spend my days, if given the choice. And I know that about myself.
So however wildly ambivalent about this decision I was initially, or more truly, wildly afraid I was of making it, I did it. I don’t know with what grace I pulled the whole thing off, though I do know I walked in on my last day and my coworker blared “The Final Countdown” on the office speakers, and then Bonnie Raitt (and then famously, later, “Wind Beneath My Wings”.) I know when I finally said I was leaving I felt power in myself I barely recognized. And I know that younger and newer people in the company told me how important to them my point of view was as they figured things out, or how inspiring my constant speaking up was to them as a woman, or just that they’ll miss my sass or my jokes in too-serious email threads. So I know I wouldn’t take any of that back, however much it may have chipped away at my credibility or indefensibility. And I know it sounds grandiose but being anything but that would have broken me much sooner.
I just hope the void I leave is felt and then filled with better insight and more humility, more detachment, and more grace than I had.
So tomorrow the whole thing will go on without me, and I will be on a park bench reading Infinite Jest for the first time ever, finally. Then I’ll go running midmorning, make lunch at home, and with any goddamn luck, spend the rest of the day writing for my life.
And eventually someone else will have my job, and possibly do it better, or at least have a much easier go of it. And all of the why of this will matter less and less. Less and less and less.
Because, and here is the important part, for the first time in a long time, I don’t have the nagging feeling that there is something else that I should be doing.
And I’ll deal with all the anxiety and pressure and self-doubt and unfathomable luck and privilege of that situation tomorrow. Tonight, I am happy I don’t have to go to work in the morning, though I know I’ll miss it.
12:52 am • 29 April 2013 • 136 notes
"This is so brave."
I have started to notice the way people say that when women write memoir-y things. This is a thing people do and it’s annoying but now I can’t stop seeing it. And I like to write these memoiry things, on whatever small scale (does twitter count?). I absolutely have that compulsion, and am fairly aware that I have a knack for it, and I find it really rewarding to do. It’s so funny to me though because, while I can’t speak for others, it seems to me like the least brave thing.
I guess any courage I have is just knowing that everyone is really fucked up, and we’re usually fucked up in similar ways, so who cares. That’s not bravery so much as self-awareness? And it’s really not narcissistic so much as it requires empathy. It’s narcissistic to think you are the only idiot with money problems or love problems or work problems. If you look around and realize everyone else has variations on your same theme, it’s very liberating. And true!
And so from there, writing about something crappy that happened to you - especially if it was your fault, if you did it! — and making it funny and compelling and entertaining? That is just advantageous, on a lot of levels — that’s just opportunity, baby. And it’s such a human compulsion to me, to confess. It so transparently satisfying on the basest level. Not in a bad way — I don’t think it’s boring (when it’s good), or any more self-involved or indulgent than anything else. I love reading this shit, and so does pretty much everyone else. It’s about the human fucking condition and it teaches about ourselves and the world. It helps us cope. It’s all there is.
But brave? Come on. You are taking something crappy and either making literal money from it, or sharing it with the world, who will then tell you they love it. You are benefitting from the bad thing! You have fulfilled the great promise of writing: you have transcended the crappy thing by imposing a narrative on it, you have made art from it, and you are loved more for it.
You took a risk that people would hate you for it, sure, but the promise of their love for you outweighed it. Your desperate need to be loved by everyone in the world outweighed it.
"So brave!" Oh shut up. Unless you are a whistleblower or calling out a tyrannical government or a murderer or something (all legitimately brave!), say it’s good or funny or deft or revelatory or fascinating or compelling or "I just really love knowing that you fucked up and it gives me great satisfaction and makes me relate to you even more, and feel less bad about my own human self."
That is enough! That is all there is!
Know that while you may feel it’s brave to overcome the fear that others will judge you, once you get over that, it is really fun and really a thrill and really psychologically satisfying to be loved for all the reason you fear you’ll be hated. It’s a great, desperate delusional shtick. “Oh you think you love me? Well, let me show you the worst parts of my brain and my self. Oh, you still love me? Ha! Wow!” <— not brave. Kind of pathological actually.
It’s fun to do, though, and fun to read. It really helps people — readers — sometimes. I believe that. But I don’t know about brave. You’re a fucking writer. You basically are inept enough that you can’t function in your life without mediating through your own brain and then imposing it back on the world and expecting to be loved for it. Ha!
Brave is getting out of bed in the morning and just living your life, and living with your choices. Brave is making choices without asking the public to affirm you for making them.
Or at least right now I am convinced of that, though I am kind of drunk tbh, and really having a hell of a time lately.
I just don’t think it’s fair to hold writing to “brave.” I don’t think that’s necessarily what it sets out to do. If we were brave, we wouldn’t need it.
9:29 pm • 12 March 2013 • 99 notes
fifteen-seventeen said: I'm thinking of switching my major to English. Right now I'm majoring in design and it's not going very well. If I'm an English major, will I be forever unemployed/sad/homeless? Also, do you have any advice for young (ish) writers?
Listen, designers have a magical skill that if you are a writer you will very often wish you had. If you are at all interested in design, please try to at least learn Photoshop or something. If for no other reason that it’s a real selling point when you are applying to be a writer for some terrible, demoralizing blog.
It seems like you will probably be unemployed unless you go into nursing or something? And yeah you’ll be sad, for sure, no matter what your major, ESPECIALLY if you are an English major (correlation does not equal causation, but like: correlation is real).
And no, I do not have any advice for young writers. I really don’t. I am wondering if young writers have any advice for me? But if the answer is, get up at 6AM every day before work and write, I will say: No. I am too tired.
But also I will say that college is your last chance to not worry about making a living — not that that’s always the case, but if it *is* the case, then it’s your last chance (well, uh, unless you are independently wealthy or marry someone who is? in which case, you won’t have to worry about money but you will still worry about your life, believe me) — so if you like reading books and talking and thinking and writing about books, do it while you can! It’s very hard to find a way to do that and also be a person in the world at the same time (and when you’re in college you’re not quite yet a person in the world, except for the people who are activists in college, who i do not mean to offend).
So do that, but also learn Photoshop, is what I’m saying. Also: your major in college really does not matter, at all, hardly ever. So just try to learn about something you like. As a bonus, learning about something you like is a good thing to practice doing (if that makes any sense). It’s a way of living / an approach that is rarer than you think.
Also this very act of taking a step back and considering what you want to spend your time on bodes well for you, sadness-wise. Just try to brush off some of the underlying anxiety — you will have the rest of your life to make choices from a place of fear. Woo!
2:16 pm • 5 March 2013 • 38 notes
(lol not a pregnancy announcement)
On my way out to Los Angeles on Friday I was reading To the Lighthouse (as I mentioned), during which I got hit with a terrible, but blessedly quick to pass, cold. Cut to me in the spare bedroom of my friend’s mother’s weekend cabin at Lake Arrowhead, lying there, wanting to die, ostensibly going to get into my pajamas before we all drank margaritas and watched WALL-E by the fire. My friend’s mom eventually came upstairs and put a blanket over me (she’s a real mom’s mom) and told me I didn’t have to come back down. Have kinder words e’er been spoken? And so there I was with little to no internet service, lying in the dark in a tiny twin bed, staring at my phone. Fortuitously (fortuitous in the way that if you are on vacation, in the mountains, in a sunny warm place, you start to think that everything really is going to be okay) I had the Emily Books book Nine Months, by Paula Bomer, waiting in an email. *cue angels of feminist vulnerabilty singing*
The premise of this book is a woman (a lapsed/frustrated painter / sort of frustrated/exhausted housewife / feminist cool mom woman type person) gets accidentally pregnant with her third child just as she was gratefully and gloriously exiting the baby-having phase of her life, and she basically freaks out about losing more of her life, debates having an abortion, and runs out on her family. And so from that I might not have to tell you that it is riveting, but it is. And I recommend you read it!
Long story short I am really enjoying it, and somewhat begrudgingly enjoying reading on my phone (I guess I begrudge this because I stare at my phone so much already? And feel like I am living in a Chris Ware comic. But ya know, it is convenient and I am most of the time already holding my phone in one of my hands anyway), and found this passage hilarious and perfect, considering I am at the same time reading (and worshipping) Virginia Woolf (you can bookmark things in your phone! Wow!):
And then there are the childless women who for some reason Sonia despises as well. The whiney, self-absorbed ones who remain perpetual children. Who still fucking blame it all on their mothers. Who have no idea. Who reads Virginia Woolf without smelling her forever-a-maiden status? Interior dialogue? Sounds great, if you don’t have kids, which thankfully keeps you from such self-absorption.
Ha! I mean: fair.
Oh, I also bookmarked this.
He’s home so late. It’s nine thirty. He looks ruined and Sonia feels very sorry for him. This job, sometimes, seems as if it’s sucking his very soul out. It seems like he goes to an office where they stick a vacuum cleaner on his chest and turn it on, without any nozzle, no, just the round metal pole, one of those kind of vacuum cleaners, where the body of it is attached to a long tubular thing, and they put it in right where his heart and soul is and suck out its very life essence.
Woo! I am really, really into this book. If you read a lot of mom blogs and are kind of obsessed but horrified all at the same time. And/or you just like really urgent, honest, funny writing: I think you will like it! And if neither of those apply to you, I am unsure what we have in common but thank you for reading.
10:43 pm • 20 February 2013 • 34 notes
“…if you put a baby near a cliff, you’re not saying that all babies live near cliffs. You’re just saying: what if there was a baby near a cliff? And/or you’re saying: isn’t it the case that, sometimes, babies get near cliffs? And/or: doesn’t life sometimes feel like you’re a baby and you’re near a cliff?”
3:05 pm • 20 February 2013 • 29 notes
“There is a code of behavior, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behooves the woman, whatever her occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs of his vanity, or his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old, maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did these things? So she sat there smiling.”
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
How would it be, indeed. I am reading this book for the first time, and I am glad I am only reading it now. It seems, halfway in, to be all about ego and social pressures and insecurity and loneliness and regret and failure and bitterness, and our choices in the face of other peoples’ choices. And how finding a bit of time to think to yourself, and a stubborn insistence upon your own happiness amid all of that, is an ongoing battle. I’m not sure I could have fully appreciated all that until fairly recently. (Ha?)
Or maybe that’s not at all what it’s about but I’d see that in every book I read.
In any case, above all it feels wonderfully rebellious in its long sentences and refusal to make any sacrifices at the altar of absolute clarity of communication. Reading this after spending my days writing clear, concise, economical, defensible sentences day in and day out — it’s sort of like how I felt watching this 60’s-ish woman in the airport security line this morning. They told her her bag was to big too carry on and she flung it around the snaking line, slammed it on its side, yanked out her pearls, and yelled at the poor airport employee. All of us were a little embarrassed for her, wanting to say, hey, you can’t behave this way. You can’t do that. But also a little bit thrilled. She did look great. Her husband remained stoic, picking her purse up off the ground and staring straight head, moving forward in the line.
A few minutes later they called final boarding for my flight - I was still taking my shoes off, putting my laptop in a bin — and I paced nervously, whispering c’mon c’mon c’mon under my breath, panicking, wishing I could fling my bag onto the ground and scream at someone.
But Virginia Woolf: she gets to do it. She can write the long winding sentences that are hard to follow, and we follow her. Or some of us do. And I like that.
1:40 pm • 15 February 2013 • 73 notes
This is from my grandma’s (Grammie!) wedding day. HA. Who are these people? I am obsessed.
10:27 pm • 11 February 2013 • 34 notes
The other night I was trying to explain to my boyfriend what it felt like when the urgent need to take off my bra flooded over me.
This is a thing that men don’t understand. Though it is pretty related to the urgent need to take off your pants. Do men have that?
9:10 pm • 11 February 2013 • 85 notes
(this actually is my grandmother) (for real)
10:54 pm • 29 January 2013 • 38 notes