The summer that I was sixteen years old, I started writing the novel that I was certain was going to become my magnum opus. It was called Bright & Beautiful, it took place during the height of the Jazz Age in America, and it was going to be The Great Gatsby for a new generation.
That was twelve years ago. At the present moment the completed first draft of Bright & Beautiful is sitting in a bundle on top of my writing desk, waiting for me to finally finish editing and get cracking with the next stage of the process.
I go whole months without thinking about it, and then I smell summer in the air and feel that pull to jump feet-first back into the world I created and then left behind. For the last decade or so, this has been my regular summertime schedule: decide that this is the year I’m finally going to finish my book, go back to re-read, make a few little editing tweaks, get tripped up by the main plot snag that I still haven’t decided how best to resolve, decide that there’s always next year, and put the manuscript away until the next summer.
I wish I had a good reason for my inability to just buckle down and get it done. But honestly, I think it’s because I’m still waiting for a bolt of inspiration like I had in the summer of 2008.
And I’m still not ready to admit that I’ll never have another summer quite like that one.
Something about being sixteen years old makes you ready to take on the world, the whole time feeling like you might actually come out on top. At that age, I knew that the only thing I really wanted to do with my life was to be a writer- and so, I wrote. I wrote short story after short story, and then longer stories, and then even longer stories, filling anthologies and branching off into novelettes and novellas. I took a notebook everywhere, and spent every free moment jotting down snippets and phrases and ideas for various projects. I spent hours and hours each day working singlemindedly on Bright & Beautiful, and squeezed in a few extra hours of writing, which I used exclusively for screenplays, by staying up all hours of the night. It was the most prolific period of writing of my entire life, and the truly remarkable part is that most of what I produced was genuinely good.
During the summer of 2008, I was Ernest Hemingway in Paris; I was Robert Louis Stevenson with the hellish fever that bore Jekyll and Hyde; I was 1980s Stephen King on a rip-roaring bender.
But alas, those days are no more.
I don’t know if it was purely the confidence of youth, or a perfect storm of too many factors for me to identify, or the fleeting blessing of the muses who I have since displeased. But whatever the reason, I no longer write like that anymore.
I’ve since become one of those novelists mercilessly mocked in every forum that discusses writing. The one who is perpetually “still working on” a story that’s been sitting mostly finished for twelve years. It turns out I’m not so much an F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even a Stephen King, as I am a George R. R. Martin.
I tell myself that there’s still time to turn it around. I remind myself of all the writing I have finished over the years. I pat myself on the back for publishing a book of poetry, and for landing a side-gig as an entertainment/pop culture magazine journalist. I tell myself that I’m still a writer, even if I had to put my baby in a corner for a while.
But I’m not sure I’ll ever really feel like I’ve earned the right to call myself by the title “writer” until I’ve done something about my great unfinished symphony.
I won’t go as far as to claim that I still think my Jazz Age beach read is going to be the next Great American Novel. I won’t even commit to saying that I still think it’s my best work. I’m not even sure if I still like the story, or think it’s relevant enough to the world at present to be worthy of publication.
But if it’s not my Gatsby, it’s certainly my Rosebud. That one damned novel-in-progress is the reason that I’ve never finished any of my other novels-in-progress. I still have this idea that my first book finished should be my first book started, no matter how much the stars and my own personal failings conspire to make that impossible.
I keep promising myself, every year, that this year is going to be the year. But we’re halfway through 2020 and I’m still stuck in the same place as every year before this one. And I’m starting to get tired of breaking my own promises.
While I decide whether or not this is the year I really do break the cycle, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Bright & Beautiful that I find particularly apt. I hope someday you’ll all get to read it in full.
Summertime brought out the best and the worst of everything.
We lost ourselves in the long lazy days, dreaming up the grandest of schemes and plans that came crashing down as quickly as the temperature rose.
We were restlessly alive, flitting from one distraction to the next like so many moths to a flame, phonograph records spinning round and round until we were dizzied by possibilities, hopelessly starry-eyed and ready to go, go, go from hell to breakfast.
We got sticky and sweaty and irritable, until we hated one another with such a blistering passion that our hot tempers rivaled the intensity of even the sun itself, until finally our frustrations came spilling over all at once in a catastrophic outburst that wrought our world asunder like the thunderclaps that cleaved the sky on those sizzling hot nights.
We sat outside into the wee hours of the morning, sipping drinks that had long since become little more than acerbic water, our thoughts as cloudy and muddled as the moon was bright, winding through those labyrinthine channels of conversation that could only be traversed in the twilight time of summer evenings.
We longed for the days that had passed, we yearned for the days that were to come, and we lived for that wonderful, beautiful, terrible and treacherous time that was now- every love felt like the first, every kiss felt like the last, and nobody gave a good goddamn whether or not the sun came up tomorrow.