But perhaps the result was no more novels? Perhaps the novel is an agnostic sort of form that not only can't say much about God, but also is even uncomfortable with God as a shadowy background figure? I was eager to detach myself from my habit of having expectations, since I had found the disappointment of my expectations crushingly painful over the years, but I wondered if that also made my work less engaged. Was the old truism that I had hated so much really true, that art, or at least novelistic art, is created out of pain and lack? I had resented and resisted that idea for years; art, I thought, is created out of observation and insight. You don't write a novel to salve a wound, but to bear witness. Nevertheless, something another writer once told me niggled in my brain—I had met Peter Taylor toward the end of his life when we were both at the Key West Writers' Festival. I asked him if he had ever had a dry spell, and he said yes, for a few years in his forties and fifties, when he and his wife had a set of especially beloved friends and he was happy.
If I had consulted my mother, she would have said that horses were wrecking my life at last. All through my horse-obsessed adolescence, she had opposed every horse fantasy I had, because women she knew had horse-crazy daughters who were in her opinion going nowhere fast. They were never going to be famous or accomplished, were always going to waste their lives riding. She had foiled me then and thought her victory was permanent—I went to the college where she hoped I would go, I became a novelist as she hoped I would, and I had had unlooked-for, vindicating success. Between 1977 or so and 1993, I had lived what was essentially a domestic life—husband, house, and children, plus university teaching. I hummed along, apparently performing my duties, but really half absent. Always my mind was pondering whatever novel I was writing. Sometimes the preoccupation was like the after-vibrations of a rung bell—words or sentences I had written that day would recur and recur, and I would feel gratified or simply fascinated by them. At other times I would nurture the next day's work or plan larger plot twists or meditate over how to go on. My novels were unceasingly in my mind. Only at night did I exert myself to stop thinking about them, because if I allowed them in, I wouldn't be able to sleep. No doubt I appeared absentminded to my friends and family, but they didn't have anything to compare it to—that's just the way I was.
After 1993, the horses intruded upon and then displaced the novels. My preoccupation went through several stages; fears and second thoughts, worries, anxiety combined with feverish research made up the first stage. I read horse books, horse magazines, got on Internet horse message boards. I cultivated equestrians and trainers and vets. Writing novels was now something I did when I was sitting at my desk, but not when I was cooking dinner or lying in bed. I fiddled around between Moo and Lidie Newton so much that my husband feared I might never write another book. Then I fell off the horse and broke my leg, so there was nothing really to do other than write Lidie Newton. And then came Horse Heaven, which was, for me, book heaven. I had successfully combined my two obsessions, and the result was pure joy every day. As far as I was concerned the book had only one flaw, that its composition ended far too soon, and I had to go on to something else. Whatever the lasting virtues of the book are (and I am no judge, especially of that one), it was perfectly suited to me and my sensibility.
But had the literary ruminations the horses had displaced been essential to novel writing? The answer to this depended on one's theory of creativity. I hadn't ever had much of a theory of creativity beyond making a cup of tea or opening a can of Diet Coke and sitting down at the typewriter or computer. The first and last rules were, get on with it. But perhaps that getting on with it that I had taken for granted for so many years was dependent upon those half-attentive ruminations during diaper changes and breadmaking and driving down the road? Or maybe teaching had stimulated me? Week after week for fourteen years I had expounded about writing, given tips, analyzed student stories, come up with suggestions, fielded questions. Both consciously and unconsciously, I had considered difficulties in my own writings and worked out solutions for them from rules I blithely laid down in class. I wasn't doing that anymore, either. Nor was I reading much fiction. Some of my reading time was taken up with horse books, but most of what I had to spare was going to research—the Civil War and Kansas, horse racing, Charles Dickens. In addition to not thinking much anymore about my own novels, I didn't think much anymore about anyone else's novels.
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Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.