Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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SEPTEMBER 5, 2011 4:56PM

My Novel is Done

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EAC 161 
After years of writing and rewriting, my novel is done.
And by "done," I mean it has a beginning, middle and end. Scenes unfold in a progressive order. All the characters have been created, and they even do interesting things. This is the "rough draft," less like a statue than a giant block of marble, and there is a lot of sculpting to go. The thing is rife with logical errors, and the typos alone would give a grammarian a brain aneurysm.
But the thing exists, at long last, weighing in at nearly 200 double-spaced pages and 53,000 words. Not long, but a nice, breezy read.
Also, a guy's face gets set on fire. How's that for a hook? 
Novels are funny things, literally and figuratively. Since most people (no exaggeration intended) do not read books, the novel is an endangered species. Novelists are always bemoaning the death of their form, but in the age of HBO, IMAX, 3D movies and Grand Theft Auto, they lack a certain je ne sais quoi as entertainment. Meanwhile, who has the time to sit around and read? Most people must work at least one job, most people bring their work home or toil bizarre hours, and once people bear children, forget about it.
(How about that irony? Not long ago, reading a book was like eating your vegetables—not always fun, but a good thing to do. Nowadays, wasting precious time on a book looks bourgeois and selfish).
Meanwhile, lots of people don't read, but they're just dying to write a novel, often based on their own lives. At every shitty job I've ever worked, at least one person exclaimed, "We should write a book about this place! Oh, the stories I could tell!" I've heard this over and over, and the expectation is that it would be a riveting comedy-drama about dishwashing or data entry or whatever else. Names and details would be changed, because most people believe that life is more interesting when it's flagrantly exaggerated.
But they don't write "that book," because the breadth of the task is daunting. If you typed 60,000 words (the length of an average novel) at 60 words per minute, just transcribing perfect sentences and telling a perfect tale, and you typed without pausing for food, rest, or revision, the manuscript would take 16 hours to compose. People don't write stories this way; they stare at a screen and chug coffee and pace around and talk to themselves. They call friends and groan and gaze through the window, because writing is a painfully slow process and most writers agonize over everything until their brains turn to slush.
I'm almost startled that my little novel is "done," because I rarely finish such projects, and they tend to languish in one laptop or another until I catch a virus and the hard drive vaporizes. There are a lot of nihilistic jerks out there who say that "writing is re-writing," and my 200-page manuscript isn't just not "done," also unreadable crap. "You've barely started," these people scoff.
And unfortunately, those nihilistic jerks are basically right. There is a long way to go.
But for now I'll pretend my marble block is a statue. And tomorrow I'll pick up a chisel and start to figure out what it really looks like. 

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