I finished writing my first book when I was fifteen. I didn't know it then, but I'd woken a fiery beast that would haunt me the rest of my days.
Back then I just started writing a short story on our black and white Apple, a short story which kept expanding and expanding until it was 400 pages (still the biggest book, in final draft, I've ever written). I enjoyed the writing process, letting my imagination unspool and unspool, and when I finished I had something thick and heavy to show for my time-a near ream of my paper filled with words I'd written. Writing a book was intoxicating and I was hooked.
So I kept chasing the next high, the next fix. The next five pages. I wrote a second book during my junior/senior years of high school and set off to college to become a Great Writer. I was driven, sure, but it was a fun drive. Being a novelist made me stand out in a sea of smart and talented college students, pretty much all of whom I am sure are more financially secure than I am these days.
Then, when I was twenty-one, my mother died after a long battle with cancer. The result? Well, among other things, my drive went into Overdrive. I wrote my third novel during the first semester of my senior year, crammed into a sweaty computer lab in Norwich, England, while 9/11 fallout unrolled around the world and I discovered a love for whiskey. The book I was working on, way out of my wheelhouse, was predictably terrible, but I was just warming up. In the next twelve years (2001-2013) I would go on to grad school and also write TEN MORE FUCKING NOVELS. Almost a novel a year and these were serious projects, nothing I took lightly. They were researched, they were revised a dozen times, they were dreamt and crafted as best as I could craft them.
Where did this drive come from? Is it even healthy? I tell people about the thirteen books at parties and they go, "Huh" and look at me like I'm perhaps insane. Maybe I am. Maybe I have cared too much for too long and now I am unfit for regular society. A unsettling writer man beast unfit for respectable company, the wild-eyed interloper a la The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
Really, why would a guy who can barely be bothered to get a lucrative job or acquire worldly goods or even keep himself in moderately good physical condition be so driven to write books that have largely gone unread? Well, for a long time I suppose I wrote for my mother, to impress her while she was alive and in her memory after she died. But she has been gone for a long time now, and I feel I've written the books I needed to move beyond such dark fuel (especially my most recent project, which addresses her slow death directly for the first time). I now stand with lighter shoulders, looking over a metaphoric writing valley that's as wide open as it's always been, and I need to figure out what is worth writing about now, as I step into my mid-thirties. I am faced with the specter of my own drive, which feels as strong as it ever has, and I need to keep channeling it in productive ways. I need to keep writing, but I think my "early work" is now behind me (unless I live to two hundred after the medical nanobot revolution).
This whole post was initiated as I read a great Grantland article by Kent Russel about former NHL fireball Theo Fleury. Most tellingly:
"What we cherish as drive or will, the psychoanalyst Adler considered 'but a tendency in the service of the feeling of inadequacy.' Adler believed that every one of us feels inadequate in some way. We can't help it, we picked it up when we were young. It doesn't even matter whether we really were inferior or not. It's simply the nature of this place to make us feel small. Then what happened was we learned ambition, how to pursue a grander future. We thought up some goal. We thought, It'll all stop once I grow up, once I make the NHL, once I get published, once I take over the world. This goal, we ordered our whole lives around it. And we strove, relentless.
'[Your] goal is so constructed that its achievement promises the possibility either of a sentiment of superiority, or an elevation of the personality to such a degree that life seems worth living,' Adler wrote. 'It is this goal which gives value to our sensations, which links and coordinates our sentiments, which shapes our imagination and directs our creative powers, determines what we shall remember and what we must forget.'
This was what made Theo Fleury so inspiring to watch. Through sheer force of will, he shoved it up everyone's ass. Even in the twilight of his career, his Hall of Fame stature long since achieved, he played as if proving something. He was fired by a deathless engine he had to keep stoking, and this was also what damned him."