How to Write a Novel: Wait Until You’re 40 and Forget Everything

July 27, 2012 • On Writing

This happens sometimes: I’ll get some saying stuck in my head, Google it, and find the only person to have ever mentioned it online was me. And usually in a previous column. For example, someone, somewhere once told me that, “Novelists are born at 40.” Naturally, the only record I could find of that exact phrase was on, under my own byline.

Now, the fantasist in me wants to believe that I’ve learned to time travel and obviously a future self planted that phrase in a past column so that I could find it now, thus inspiring the chain of events that eventually leads to my ability to time travel. It could happen. It could also happen that my short-term memory is shot. I’m not going to torture myself by Googling “Amnesics are born at 40,” for fear that I’ve already written it somewhere. That is, unless my time-traveling future self is saving it up to pay off some gag down the line.

I’ve sent my editors on these kind of feedback loops before, so it was only a matter of time before I too went down my own wormhole. What’s irritating is that I know for a fact that the phrase isn’t original with me. I’m pretty sure my friend, Sonoma writer and occasional collaborator Lisa Summers first mentioned it off-hand and even then, I’m convinced she was quoting. Summers herself would have said something more like, “Novelists are born amnesics.” Then I’d ask her to repeat it and she would look at me blankly and ask, “What did you just say?” I’d reply, “I don’t remember,” and she would sum up with, “We must be novelists.”

This is why we can’t get that wretched play done – we’re trapped in a play ourselves – by Eugene Ionesco. And we’re novelists anyway, I seem to recall.

“We are all looking for something of extraordinary importance whose nature we have forgotten; I am writing the memoirs of a man who has lost his memory,” Ionesco wrote in his memoir, “Present Past/Past Present.” I’m inclined to agree, except for it’s seldom something of extraordinary importance for which I’m looking, so much as a half-remembered turn of phrase like, “40 novelists are born a year,” or something.

Perhaps Summers said, “Novelists are born at 40,” when she herself was 40 and writing her first novel. I wrote my first at 27, which is to say, it was premature by as many years as I was immature. Now, I’m closing in on another, a more masterful volume of cleverly camouflaged narcissism. And I’m also freshly 40 now, which means the novelist in me has been born. Of course, this could mean the book will have been written by a literary infant, but I’ll try to forget that. There, I already have.

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell got some mileage in his book, “Outliers,” with the so-called “10,000-Hour Rule,” which suggests that expertise is often achieved as a result of practicing one’s craft for about 10,000 hours. That’s just over a year and a half, if you go full-bore 24/7.

So, accounting for eating, sleeping, procrastinating and the other distractions of my so-called literary life, I became an expert about half an hour ago. At 40. This is pathetic since I’ve been a gainfully employed writer since my mid-20s. However, when I’ve dared to read my early work, it’s like reading the memoirs of a man who has lost his memory, except at that age, this isn’t much to forget. I can fix that now. After all, “Amnesics are born at 40,” right?

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