“I’m not systematic, I’m not a critic or a theorist, which means I look for solutions in my work as problems arise.”
—Argentine writer and teacher Julio Cortázar
“It’s a lot easier knowing you can’t do something than knowing you shouldn’t.”
—American golfer and train wreck John Daly
In almost thirty years as a fiction writer and an occasional instructor in MFA writing programs, I’ve often despaired that teaching someone to write a novel is about as easy as writing one. That is to say: Not.
Every rule and best practice that has ever escaped my mouth seems to unravel under scrutiny or to give way to a dozen exceptions. I look back at old notes and lectures and think, Wait, is this even true? Do I believe any of this?
Since I don’t ascribe to a particular pedagogy or writing philosophy, I aim, simply, to be helpful in workshop. Of use. Yet I find myself worrying that even the most concrete advice is no better than its exact opposite. (“This section could be longer.” Or shorter. “This needs less backstory.” Or more.)
Especially with novels, teaching often teeters dangerously close to the tautological: a novel works because it works.
I suspect that’s why, when cornered about what they do, novelists often turn to metaphor, like badgers showing their teeth.
Stendhal: “A novel is a mirror walking along a main road.”
Ralph Ellison: “The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier.”
Annie Dillard: “The novel is a game or joke shared between writer and reader.”
Graham Greene: “The novel is an unknown man and I have to find him.”
I envy lines like this, and wish I had a single metaphor to describe the process of writing my seven novels. None of the above really speaks to me, and so I wonder if novel metaphors aren’t meant to be read suggestively, more like prompts. (Stuck? Try thinking of your book as an unknown man you set out to find.) Or perhaps they really are like bared teeth, simply meant to create distance between writer and question, in the off-putting, inaccessible way that writers sometimes talk about craft.
I usually begin workshop by referring to Julio Cortázar’s book Literature Class, his chronicle of eight brilliant lectures delivered at the University of California Berkeley, and his admission that he approaches fiction as neither critic nor theorist but as problem solver. Cortázar inspired me—a working-class writer with no MFA who came through publishing’s service entrance, journalism—to think of myself in class as an itinerant mechanic, here to help with the knocking sound in your prose, or to figure out why your narrative is so slow to accelerate. (Faulty plugs, typically, or gunk in the carburetor.) My mechanic persona has served me so well that I’ve considered sewing elbow patches onto a pair of coveralls and wearing them to class.
By focusing on specific mechanical issues, I have also avoided the big and, to my mind, sticky problem of scale, which has precluded me from developing my own big metaphor, a grand unifying theory of fiction that would explain and codify the whole enterprise.
So, imagine my surprise when, in the summer of 2022, I was teaching at a two-week retreat in Tennessee, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and I was visited by a novel metaphor so big, so perfect, so profound, that I nearly wept at its genius.
We were workshopping the first few chapters of a young writer’s promising novel, but something wasn’t working. It had vivid prose, compelling characters, inherent conflict, interesting scenes, and yet the whole thing felt flat, incomplete, inert in some entirely familiar way.
The class made a valiant effort, turning pages, chewing pens, pointing out lines they liked and lines they didn’t, making suggestions and positing that perhaps the problem lay in structure. (When in doubt, always blame structure.)
But the problem felt more specific than that. How could three well-written, well-peopled chapters feel so incomplete? How had it failed to hook us? It is one of the worst moments in teaching, when you vaguely recognize a problem that you may have even struggled with yourself but can’t define.
And then it hit me.
“You aren’t finishing the hole,” I said, and sat up in my chair. “Like in golf. Look. You’ve hit a great drive here in chapter one, a great opening paragraph, telling us about the two sisters, the brilliant one and the responsible one, but then, before you’ve done anything with it, before you’ve hit an approach shot or even gotten us to the green, you’re teeing up the second chapter, showing us the child getting abandoned, and before we even know the significance of that, you’ve picked up the ball and moved to the third hole by introducing the mother.”
As I talked, I thought about how this can happen in my own work, or in novels I’ve abandoned, and how students and writer friends sometimes say things like, “The action really gets going in chapter two,” or “You have to wade through some backstory but then it takes off”—and how rarely we talk about a certain element of a novel, the chapter, and especially the opening chapter. And wait, what even is a chapter if not a single hole in golf, a unit complete and yet incomplete without the rest of the book? Because no one would ever mistake the par 4 first hole for a complete round of golf, and yet, you literally cannot move to the second hole until you’ve finished the first. And also how satisfying it is to complete a hole, to see the ball drop in the cup and move on to the next hole (for the reader, too)—and how often insecurity and our fear of boring the reader cause us to bail out of a scene, like bailing out on a swing. And suddenly I could see my own grand unifying theory of fiction, the perfect novel metaphor, and I paused to imagine the cover of the craft book I would write (Play All Eighteen, with an author photo of me typing with a single golf glove) and the TED talk I would give (“Fore Whom the Ball Rolls”) and the Times profile (Writing is golf, Walter says, shanking a 4-iron into the trees. And golf is life.)
“Don’t you see,” I pleaded with the class, “you have to finish the hole!”
It was quiet in the classroom.
I looked around at fifteen blank stares.
Immediately, I could see the problem. Is there anything more anathematic to creativity than the game of golf? And the only thing worse than golf are golfers. I’d just outed myself as one of those guys. (Yes, I know, golf isn’t only played by men, but eighty percent of golfers are male, so I will use the male pronoun here, while conceding that female and nonbinary golfers likely suck too.) Golf is everything that’s wrong with America, and if you think I’m overstating it, close your eyes and tell me which former President you picture first on a golf course, resplendent in diapered pants, red ball cap, meringue hair.
Golf is a miserable game played by miserable elites that takes up massive tracts of prime real estate, destroying natural habitats and wasting billions of gallons of water on phony playgrounds that would be better used to house the homeless or grow food for the hungry or store radioactive waste, any purpose that isn’t four ripe assholes from the firm zipping around in carts talking about how much titanium is in their drivers.
“So, um, yes,” I muttered as class ended, “remember to . . . uh . . . finish the hole.”
Fiction is, understandably, taught in the short form, most often at the granular level. In teaching short stories, the focus lands first on language and then on that sturdy unit of measure, sentences, and the various effects created by them. The tighter the focus, the better. Who hasn’t been wowed by that writer’s magic trick, the close read, a single page of prose marked up like the revisions of a mad composer? As the editor Gordon Lish said in a 2015 Paris Review interview: “I have the view that, in a word, in a breath, in a turn, the sublime can be created.”
A word, a breath, a turn—a sentence. This is how fiction has been taught for decades, until great writing, at least in writing programs, has become nearly synonymous with the great sentence.
Back in 2001, a critic named B. R. Myers published in the Atlantic Monthly what he called “A Reader’s Manifesto” (with the subhead “An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.”) It was one of those cranky, nostalgic essays that, had it been published twenty years later, would’ve caused a Class 5 indignation storm on Twitter. I found it reactionary and narrow, and I disagreed with most of it, especially the writers he chose to label as pretentious, but I credit Myers for drawing attention to the cult of the sentence. (Fifteen years later, in a New Yorker essay, James Wood would echo this, calling our current literary moment “the age of the sentence fetish.”) After Myers’s essay, every time I hear someone say, “So-and-So writes great sentences,” I picture an AWP panel filled with robed sentence cultists. I think: Go ahead, write four thousand perfect sentences and then tell me if you’ve succeeded in making a novel. I think: You know who else writes great sentences? Third graders.
I’m not saying we should abandon the sentence as our base currency, the dollar to which our estimation of good fiction writing is pegged. But, for years I have wished that MFA programs held a similar regard for the elegance and beauty of the larger-form elements of narrative, even those describing—trigger warning, profanity ahead—plot.
In an insightful and lovely introduction to Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Lauren Groff rightly praises Hazzard’s writing, which is “built out of close observation and the precision of poetry.” Groff also praises Hazzard’s prose for “an economy that relies on a deliberate delaying of the verb until at least halfway through the sentence.” Hazzard’s sentences “finish at a hard stop upon their most powerful word.” But Groff (a writer who shares Hazzard’s remarkable facility with both the large scale and the granular) goes on to explain why The Transit of Venus, besides being beautifully written, is also a great novel, because of its “orchestrations of echo and rhythm, her quiet deployment of foreshadowing and omniscient irony,” and for Hazzard’s deft handling of “ideas of fate, time, secrets, the nature of true goodness, the transitory nature of love.”
So . . . how? How does Hazzard orchestrate “echo and rhyme,” create “foreshadowing and omniscient irony,” and tell a breathtaking story about “fate, time, secrets . . . love”? Sentence by sentence? Sure. But aren’t there other elements we can point to that will give us perspective on how she achieves such an extended and full narrative effect?
This question has bedeviled a certain visiting mechanic who often finds himself working at the other end of the spectrum: Why does this student’s first chapter start so slowly? Why does that student’s novel make a grinding noise every time I turn the page?
That day in Tennessee, I thought I had discovered the answer. And it was . . . golf? Really? That was going to be my calling card? Then I remembered that someone else wears coveralls. Caddies.
To the nongolfer, a caddy likely appears to be some kind of jumpsuited manservant only there to carry the clubs, but caddies are in fact experts themselves, analytical golfers whose job is to give the “pro” (or the weekend golfer) something like a second opinion on which club to choose, which shot to play, and, girded with specific knowledge of a particular course, which hole might “play long” or how “a slight fade” might be needed to avoid the sneaky sand trap lurking on seven. Just imagine, as a writer, having an expert alongside as you typed: (Yeah, I don’t know, mine would be saying now, are you sure about this whole writing as golf metaphor?)
Still, I took a caddy’s look at structure, at the narrative strokes of Shirley Hazzard’s game. The Transit of Venus is broken traditionally into thirty-seven chapters. (Coincidentally, this is one more chapter than playing two full rounds of golf. Am I saying that Hazzard intuitively understood that writing is golf? Well, I’m not not saying it.)
The first chapter begins with Hazzard taking a full swing of descriptive omniscience, the writer’s equivalent of staring at a pencil-thin fairway and reaching for your driver:
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.
As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War—unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.
That noon, a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve—for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments—waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.
The man in the fourth paragraph, we find out, is Ted Tice, a young scientist approaching the home of an older man he will be working and living with in the coming months, Professor Sefton Thrale. Also living in the Thrale house are two beautiful orphaned sisters, Grace and Caroline (Caro) Bell. The house is dark because a storm has knocked out the power, and the whole scene is wonderfully, atmospherically candlelit. Tice knocks, enters, and meets Thrale’s wife, as well as the first of the sisters, Grace, engaged to marry Sefton Thrale’s son.
The chapter ends a mere five pages later (with the same delightfully restrained yet expansive voice that began it) as Ted Tice is on the verge of meeting Caro, the beautiful and mysterious woman he will pursue the rest of the novel:
A little curled chrysanthemum of a dog was in heaven at her approach. “Grasper, Grasper.” The dog jumped up and down, speechless. Someone was shaking a bell. Grace was opening a door. And the lights went up by themselves, as on a stage.
I can think of no better way to explain what has just happened—in language, in character, in theme, and especially in narrative momentum—than, forgive me, Shirley Hazzard finishing the first hole. Hazzard completes what she has begun with that opening, tonally and narratively, leaving us eager to find out what happens on the stage she has evoked, the lights suddenly snapping back on, with Caro about to enter the room.
That last line finishes a small movement (the storm and power outage) within the larger movement of the book (the loves and longings of its characters) and drops with a satisfying plunk—not unlike, I must say, the sound of a twenty-foot birdie putt rolling in (not that I am overly familiar with that sound), the author handing her putter to her editor and confidently striding toward the second chapter, gallery enrapt, polite applause ringing in the air.
I came to this miserable game in the most unlikely way, in 1983, as a seventeen-year-old kid at a high school I lovingly refer to as a bong and nunchuck factory. I distinguished myself there as the sort of student who smoked skunk weed out of a plastic soda bottle and used a fake ID to buy cheap beer—all while maintaining a trailer-park gentleman’s B average.
One day, during my senior year, I was approached by the golf coach, Harold Weakland. “Walters!” he shouted—he never got my name right—“you play golf?” Harold had been tasked with fielding a team from our stagnant pool of slackers, stoners, apple pickers, and factory workers’ kids, most of whom, like me, had never even seen a golf course. Harold had three “sticks,” kids who’d grown up playing the game, and he was scouring the halls for vaguely athletic boys and girls to fill out his twelve-person varsity and JV teams.
My pipefitter dad had a simple rule: play a sport after school or get a job. In the fall, I tried to play football (usually ending mid-season with a broken bone) and in the winter I played basketball (my “best” sport). But spring was a challenge. I didn’t love to run, so track was out, and as a one-eyed kid (a stick accident as a five-year-old) I lacked the necessary hand-eye coordination for baseball.
That’s how, in the spring of my senior year, Harold Weakland convinced me to try golf.
He gathered a bunch of us in the gym, brought out some secondhand starter sets he’d picked up at Goodwill (two woods, three irons, a wedge, and a putter, in a bag the width of your neck) and planted us in front of a big net, where he taught us the basics of a golf swing. When he turned his back, we aimed our shots at each other—think Lord of the Flies with 3 woods.
When he decided we were ready, Harold brought us to the nearest course, a public track called Liberty Lake.
Our bags didn’t even have straps, so we carried them by the handles, like lunch pails. Years later, my younger brother told the Liberty Lake pro where he and I had played high school golf, and the pro recalled laughing every time our team came walking up to the course in our cutoff shorts and mismatched starter sets. “Here come the Suitcasers,” he’d say.
Harold was a great coach. He believed that even kids at a school such as ours deserved to be exposed to the sport of the idle rich, and in my senior year (no thanks to me; I only played one match) Harold Weakland’s Suitcasers went to the Washington state tournament, and, against all odds, holding our own against the country-club kids from Seattle, placed seventh.
Since then, I have continued to play golf five or six times a year. I’m not very good, but I can play anywhere, and with anyone. I’ve always thought of golf as a class escalator, like learning to speak French or being exposed to classical music. I find myself quietly thanking Coach Weakland each time I play, the way I thank the uncle who taught me to tie a tie a few hours before my high school graduation.
Then, a few years ago, I was putting for double bogey at a public course near my house when I heard a familiar voice. “Walters!” I looked up. It was Harold Weakland, now retired, leaning on the railing of the clubhouse patio. I hadn’t seen him in thirty years. “You became a pretty good writer,” he said. “Still a shitty golfer, though.”
After my workshop golf epiphany, I made the mistake of having a whiskey with Adam Ross, the distinguished editor of this very journal, and excitedly told him about my discovery. He made sure no one was looking and then admitted to being a golfer too. He asked if I might explore the idea more deeply, in one of the few genres I have avoided as a writer—the dreaded craft essay—for some of the reasons stated above (and perhaps an even more personal one: after three decades of writing, I think I’m more zookeeper than veterinarian; I don’t feel the need to dissect frogs to understand how they jump so high).
Still, I agreed, went home, and began slicing into some of my favorite novels, overlaying my newfound golf template on their various structures. (What if, I wondered, I had stumbled upon some previously undiscovered cellular structure of novel writing.)
I had not.
Sometimes, as with The Transit of Venus, the metaphor fits. Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful novel Hamnet begins with a perfect par 4 of foreshadowing in its first sentence, “A boy is coming down a flight of stairs,” which leads into a dogleg of backstory, plot, and scene-setting as the boy ventures out and then returns at the end of the first chapter:
And Hamnet? He is re-entering the narrow house, built in a gap, a vacancy. He is sure, now, that other people will be back. He and Judith will no longer be alone. There will be someone here now who will know what to do, someone to assume charge of this, someone who will tell him that all is well. He steps in, letting the door swing closed behind him. He calls, to say he is back, he is home. He pauses, waiting for an answer, but there is nothing: only silence.
In both theme and action, Hamnet’s opening is the perfect “first hole” for a novel about the death of Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son and the way it may have affected the Bard, his family, and one of his greatest plays. Besides establishing the setting (Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway’s house) and O’Farrell’s masterful omniscient voice (her swing, one might say), this scene, showing the boy returning home with the first signs of sickness, is the point from which the novel logically proceeds, and, like any good first hole, must eventually return.
However, unlike the first chapter of The Transit of Venus, this one occurs out of sequence chronologically, and requires half a novel’s worth of backstory. A round of golf is nothing if not chronological (unless, I suppose, the starter has you play the back nine first or you’re in a tournament with a shotgun start). This certainly complicated my metaphor.
Similarly, as I tried applying my golf template to other favorite novels, I found myself either stretching the idea beyond any sense of clarity or abandoning it entirely. Here, from my notes, are a few of my results: (Everett, Erasure: sort of; Patchett, Bel Canto, not really; Kennedy, Ironweed: hmm, maybe; Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice: yes, er, I don’t know . . . )
It was while rereading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño that I burst into laughter and surrendered to my folly. I have no idea how to summarize the structure of that brilliant, blazing story, but I can tell you this: it did not once make me think of golf. The book is discursive, poetic, comic and philosophical. If its free-for-all structure bears any resemblance to a round of golf, I cannot tell you how. Part I is the journal of a passionate, naïve seventeen-year-old poet falling in with a slippery group of writers known as the Visceral Realists; Part II is an almost 450-page series of testimonies from some forty narrators spread across continents and decades, reflecting on the Visceral Realists, while Part III returns to the young poet and, finally, after almost six hundred pages, contains the closest thing you’ll find to a traditional plot.
And it is, for reasons that no metaphor can capture, brilliant.
Every writer knows that feeling of having the bubble pop, of no longer believing the thing you’re writing. There is no going back. Every book I opened after The Savage Detectives seemed to spit laughter in my face: “Seriously? Golf?”
Confronted with the abject failure of my initial premise, I turned to the only weapon a writer has: procrastination. For weeks I avoided the problem, only occasionally tinkering with the story of The Suitcasers as if I might find in my scraggly high school golf team some way out of my flawed thesis.
Finally, I did the only other responsible thing that a stuck writer can do. I skipped town. I left for a long-planned five-week train trip through France and Italy. At one point, I started an email to the aforementioned Mssr. Ross, thinking that if I wrote him from Paris, I might convince him to forgive my essay debt. I finally sent the email from Switzerland, proposing the following:
I’m writing you from a hotel room in Zurich . . . the “craft” “essay” (yes, quote marks belong around both) is a clunking mess, an anecdote gone looking for something to justify it . . . can we kill it? Delay it a month?
Fake my death?
Another problem—I’m in Europe until mid-April with so few of my books. I did go to the Shakespeare and Co. store in Paris looking for more examples of the questionable point I was irrationally making in this silly essay but . . . alas, they got tired of me taking photos of pages of books and I gave up and went to drink at the Josephine Bar.
Please advise in the manner of early twentieth-century editors who have mistakenly put their trust in drunks.
Adam’s response was, shall we say, prompt:
Let me, like Cher in Moonstruck, smack you across the face like she did Nicolas Cage, and shout, “Snap out of it!”
He then went on to gently remind me that I promised him a craft essay and that I should deliver said craft essay by the agreed-upon date. And he closed with a golf anecdote of his own, set in the birthplace of that awful game, Scotland. This charming story involving a copper-headed putter and a sleeve of Titleist golf balls convinced me of two things: one, that Adam is probably a better golfer than I am, and two, golf, indeed, has very little to do with writing.
He finished this way:
As I heard John Daly say to Fred Couples every time the latter stood over a putt of five to eight feet (this on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf when they played each other, miked up), “Knock it in, pro.”
Knock it in, pro.
Can we agree on this deadline, please?
I responded to this thoughtful email with more procrastination, until I got to Lake Como, in Italy, and received a shorter, pithier email that could’ve been delivered via terse telegram by the very twentieth-century editor I had pleaded with earlier.
Seriously. Can we do that?
My response was a quick “Of course.” What I should’ve written is this: “Thanks, Adam. You’re the Harold Weakland of literary editors.”
I am in Florence now, at the Paperback Exchange bookstore, a forty-four-year-old English language book shop in the heart of the Centro Storico, just around the corner from Dante’s house (note: Dante did not write The Divine Comedy here, but in exile, after being sentenced to death, I believe, for missing deadline on an essay.) I have been standing here for an hour, opening books, muttering phrases like, “hit into a narrative trap” and “holed out the chapter to save par.” I think the owner may have just called the polizia.
Flustered, I escape for an Aperol spritz at a little trattoria across the street to add up the numbers on my golf-as-novel scorecard. The data is clear. Exactly sixteen percent of novels can vaguely fit the template of a round of golf. Another nine percent can be made to fit by a writer desperate to finish a craft essay and slightly afraid that his worried editor is pricing flights to Florence.
One-fourth, not bad.
From my research, I can say confidently that my “Finish the hole” novel metaphor might be helpful if you are A. writing a book with fairly traditional chapters, and need to think of them as discrete but dependent units, much like golf holes (with their own beginnings, middles, and ends), within a larger structure, like a round of golf; B. are the kind of writer who might become insecure, afraid you are boring the reader and prone to bailing out of scenes and motifs before bringing them to a satisfying conclusion; C. writing in omniscience, or with multiple points of view and having trouble managing the chaos.
Picturing a chapter’s narrative movements as the individual shots of a golf hole (drive, approach, chip, putt, stay out of the rough) can also be a good way to organize your thoughts, and to address the age-old problem of the novelist, which, in the words of either Aristotle or Bob Seger (after several Aperol spritzes I can’t quite remember) is this: “What to leave in, what to leave out.” There is, of course, more to golf than just hitting the ball as far as you can; there’s something in a well-played hole that is reminiscent of the nuanced decision-making and the action-and-reaction that are required of a fiction writer. Each shot on a golf course is envisioned first: the shape of it, the distance, what you hope to accomplish, where it will lead. And, because it almost never works the way you imagine, adjustments are constantly required—for surprises, for mishits, for characters who won’t do what they’re told, for scenes that don’t play out as imagined, for the basic shittiness that every golfer and writer innately shares.
And yet, when done right, there is nothing quite like the feel of a well-played hole—the soft draw that lands at a perfect angle to the green, the slight fade into a crosswind that holds an impossible green—except maybe a perfect chapter. To begin a taut, well-voiced book like Charles Portis’s True Grit (“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day”) is to watch a pro step up to the first tee.
I think that quality of intentionality—choosing a club, or a voice, envisioning a series of shots, the scenes in a novel—is especially important at the beginning—the beginning of a round, a book, a career. The first chapter of your first novel is so wildly important. It must catch the attention of an agent, an editor, readers. They might not give you more than ten or fifteen pages, so it’s not a bad idea to ask if your first chapter is, like the first hole on a course, the best starting place. No voice clearing, no warming up on the range, this is it, where the game starts, where the story has no choice but to proceed. It’s something Maggie O’Farrell seems keenly aware of, as she writes midway through the brilliant first chapter of Hamnet:
Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.
Find the first tee, the kernel, the hub. Envision the shots that get you to the green. Hit a strong drive, a careful approach, a long putt; set the stage, and, hopefully, make the reader feel they are in the gallery of a real pro.
But alas, “finishing the hole” is no grand unifying theory. I’m not even sure it’s a good metaphor. For instance, I had no answer to a question posed by another editor, Eric Smith: Is the writer in this metaphor the golfer or the course architect? (“Is the writer two-putting … on someone else’s course?”) Having given this ontological puzzle several seconds of deep thought, all I can say is: Another spritz over here, please.
Which brings me back to the beginning and another great thing about golf. You finish where you started, the eighteenth hole always circling back around to the clubhouse and the first tee box, to O’Farrell’s place “to which everything returns.”
And so, I find myself circling back to the idea of metaphors for the novel being merely suggestive, helpful when they happen to be helpful, as circular and tautological as the things they set out to describe.
A novel metaphor, too, works if it works.
Every novelist understands this intuitively the moment they embark on a second book. The lessons learned in your first novel are essentially worthless in writing your second. My first novel had fifty-six chapters. My fourth novel had three. I have written straight chronology and I have written parallel narratives fifty years apart and I have made time into hash. I wrote one novel that spanned one hundred years and another that took place over one week. I have written first-person novels and polyphonic novels and a novel that braided a third-person omniscient narrator with nine first-person narrators (most of whom die at the end of their sections.)
How could the same metaphor or template possibly fit all of those books?
And that’s just one writer’s work. Imagine trying to find a single metaphor to describe a library full of novels. It would be like judging world cuisine based on a single dish, using an omelet to discern the nature of all food.
In fact, now that I think about it, that’s a pretty good metaphor for writing a novel—food—and the varied nature of dishes and recipes. In fact, Adam, if you’re still reading, what do you say we go with that instead? The novelist as chef? What do you say, Adam? Eric? Anyone?
Just let me know. I’ll be at a bar in Capri.