Why I’ll Never Write Fiction Again

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the wizard Prospero puts away his magic.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

It’s time to leave the enchanted isle and return to life in the outside world.

The New Yorker just published its once-a-decade 20 under 40 list of fiction writers to watch. Unsurprisingly, I’m not on the list, and, since I’m now 40, I will never be on it. Fiction writing is mostly a young person’s game. And I’m ok with that, although 15 years ago, I was certain—certain—I would be on the list one day. By the time I was 27, I’d written three novels and, for a while, had an agent at a Big Name Agency. But here’s the thing: the novels weren’t very good. Sure, they had a few passages I wouldn’t be embarrassed to let people read now, but overall, you probably wouldn’t buy them. They were the worst kind of mid-list dreck—their stories not plotted enough to make them page turners, and their style and insight not strong enough to make them art.

I think to be a good fiction writer, you have to have at least two of these four traits:

  • the ability to tell a compelling story
  • the ability to create characters the reader cares about
  • a recognizable style in putting words together in a novel and/or beautiful way
  • something important to convey that can only be told via the medium of fiction

Some of the best novelists—Dickens, Twain, Austen, Chabon, McCarthy, Woolf, O’Brian, etc.—have had all of these qualities (although not in equal measure).

I, I’ve come to realize, do not have these qualities. Sure, I can do all of these—just not very well. And, as Clint Eastwood so aptly noted, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So just as the high school football star eventually has to realize he’s not going to go pro, so to does the college English major have to realize he’s not going to write the Great American Novel. And, while this is sad, I’ve come to terms with it. It’s not the course my life has taken.

To be a fiction writer, you should probably read a lot of fiction, and I just don’t any more. I read quite a bit, probably some 40 books a year, but my non-fiction to fiction ratio is probably 3:1 these days. Fiction writing—any writing, really—takes time. You really have to want to do it, especially to write books, which are the equivalent of marathon running in the sports world. It is much easier to want to write a book than to write one. I simply don’t want it enough. Charles Bukowski, as always, nails it:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

The roaring has stopped for me, so I’m doing something else.

So away goes the Revolutionary War spy novel I’ve been thinking about for over a dozen years now, and away goes the scifi novel set 100 years into an electricity-free, but zombie-full, future that I started a few months ago. I’ll give you the first line of that one:

When the computer turned on, after nearly a century of silence, Arturo, Lord of Willock, didn’t hear its whisper over the clang of swords from the courtyard below.

Feel free to finish it. I have other projects to work on. That’s what this decision is really about: the biggest question of all: what do you spend your time doing? “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” writes Annie Dillard. I already have a hobby that I enjoy that I’m never going to be good (much less great) at: playing the cello. I want to do more of that. I want to grow my business, and make it one of the best design firms in the world. I want to focus on my family; it won’t be that many years until my daughter is goes away to college. I want to do more design projects, and become a stronger, better designer. I want to write another design book on designing devices. I want to design products that are important, lasting, meaningful. All these things require focus. Deeper, not broader is my new mantra.

While I enjoy being well-rounded, at a certain age, a tight focus on what is important and what you realistically can accomplish is essential. We do, after all, only have a limited time on this earth and we really don’t know how limited.

Sometimes, you have to listen to what the universe is telling you. I’ve written two (mostly) well-received design books. I get asked to speak on design all over the world. I work on cool design projects that I enjoy and that can and will change the world. My company is starting to take off. This is a pretty clear message that I’ve found my niche, my bliss, even if it isn’t anywhere close to what I thought it would be 20 years ago. Only a fool would ignore such signs.

I’m a published author, three times over. So it’s not like I don’t have books. Writing non-fiction is something I never expected in my life, and I suppose the lesson there is to leave enough space in your life for the unexpected as well. Frank Bascombe, the protagonist in the great trilogy of novels by Richard Ford, discovers this as well, I think: setting aside fiction writing for sportswriting, and, eventually, selling real estate. We don’t know the turns our lives will take, and, as Ford writes, “The only truth that can never be a lie, let me tell you, is life itself—the thing that happens.”

The roaring has stopped for me. I’m doing something else. I’d like to think I’ll miss writing fiction, but the truth is, I probably won’t. It’s the writing, the creating, the putting of words next to each other in a beautiful, clear way that I like, and I have plenty of that. My life is still quite full without being a novelist. “When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you,” said Lao Tzu. So true.

Shakespeare doesn’t tell us what exactly happens to Prospero at the end of The Tempest. But the final words of the play are his, and he says this bit, which I’m taking with me:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own

What strength I have’s mine own. Yes.