There is something really unique in the relationship between a novel and a writer. There are a lot of metaphors about a novel being a lover, a child, or some other person that the writer is supposed to care about, but if those metaphors were accurate, novelists would be the most negligent caregivers in the world. Even really dedicated writers give maybe four or five hours of their time to the story a day, and many more just leave the thing sitting there for months at a time while they research what to do with it or get distracted with other projects.
I just don’t think the parent-child relationship is quite right. I think parts of the metaphor are accurate. Writers have responsibility for their novels. They need to support their health and development, and they need to give all their effort. But as loving as it is, the relationship is often enormously awkward and guilt-inducing. So, allow me to introduce a new metaphor.
Novels are essentially whales in the cabinet. This occurred to me sometime in the fall of 2013 while talking to a friend and I’ve felt especially bad about my own whales since then.
What’s it like to have a whale in the cabinet? Well, every night you open the door and attempt to lift this enormous creature. It’s absolutely huge— you can’t see the whole thing, even. A good portion of this sea-beast might be in cabinet-Narnia.
You might struggle to heave a fin onto your shoulder and pull it a little. Some nights you even feel like maybe you made some progress. It seems like it might be sticking a little further out after your efforts. But then other nights, you just see it there, so far from the ocean, so helpless. You realize with horror just how weak you are and how ridiculously big it is, and how horribly far away the ocean is. And then you cry.
“How do I save you, whale?”
There’s no way you can move this whole whale. You’re just one little writer. No one’s even heard of you, really. No one is going to help you. You are the only person in the world who can get this whale to the water, the only one who cares about it. And if you don’t exhaust yourself every night just to move it maybe a few centimeters, or to just throw some water on it, the whale will die and it will be all your fault. Who entrusted you with a whale, anyway?
You go through school or work, you cook meals, you socialize, but all the while you know that the whale is still there. Sad. In the dark. You are growing to know the whale, and sometimes you even love it, and then guilt begins to eat you up from your belly. You bring it up to a few friends.
“I have a whale in my cabinet.”
“Really? I love whales. That’s so cool. What’s he like?”
“Don’t you think you could be spending your time better? Keeping whales in your cabinet isn’t a very reliable career option. It’s pretty irresponsible.”
“Huh. So how long has it been there?”
As time goes on you learn what gets the whale to move a little more. Maybe you’ve never done this before and maybe you have, but this whale is different from anything you’ve ever dealt with before. In your writing classes, you’ve carried fish from your cabinet to the ocean. They stay all wet and smell of fresh tides the whole time. Some of them have healthy, deep colors, their scales reflective and sparkling. Their mouths gasp and they panic a little on the walk there, but most shoot off into the water in good health and leave you feeling satisfied with a job well done.
But this is not a fish. It’s not even a porpoise. This is clearly the largest thing you’ve ever seen.
You imagine how much this whale could change the world. It has at least one giant brown eye (hopefully two, but it’s really squished) and when you watch it, you want to scream to the world how completely beautiful this whale is. You want to lead someone into your bedroom, throw open the cabinet door, and say “Look! This is my whale. It’s gorgeous and noble and mine.”
But you don’t, because then you see how sickly it is. It’s so far away from the ocean, and its skin is drying out no matter how much you pour on it. It’s crumpled, too, and the way it’s all shoved in your cabinet convinces you that it’s not only horrifically bruised but is probably developing scoliosis.
Before you know it, conversations about your whale become stressful.
“Didn’t you have a whale at some point? What happened with that?”
“Yeah… uh… it’s, um.”
“When are you planning on getting it back in the water?”
“Not for a while, I think. I’m just not sure how yet. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and I’ve practiced carrying fish a lot. It’s just… it’s so huge.”
“Can I see it?”
“NO! Not now. Not yet. It… it really looks awful. Oh, God, I’ll take care of it soon, I swear, and then you can see it.”
Inch by inch you move the whale. Maybe you find some friends who also have whales and you agree to help them move theirs if they help you move yours. With some assistance, it becomes easier, but it’s still your responsibility.
You grow familiar with your whale, and your loved ones do too as it moves gradually down the stairs and through the living room.
I like to imagine that eventually all whales make it to the ocean, and if they’re healthy enough, they find nice homes there and lots of people can enjoy watching and getting to know the whales.
Maybe your friends and family come to the shore to watch it and they compliment you saying,
“I really like that whale. I think you did a really good job getting it to the water.”
“It swims at a really nice pace.”
“This whale reminds me so much of a really healthy whale I saw once.”
Sure, there might be some other comments. Comments about how it swims crooked because of its twisted spine and the missing chunk of flesh from its tail, or how it appears a bit sickly at times— but gosh darn it, it’s your whale, and you did your best.
But, I wouldn’t know any of that, because I have two whales shoved in my cabinets right now, and I think they might be dying.
I’m sorry whales! I’ll start moving you again after I graduate, I promise.
(Also, if anyone is curious, poems are lobsters. Make of that what you will.)