In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher. I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries. Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home. I read the novel eagerly last month. It is powerful.
Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here. He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs. Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted. More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.
The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities. The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency. This book is not light entertainment. The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret. But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real. Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise. This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism. In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity. Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.
Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating. “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said. “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family. But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”
Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape. This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.
Here is the Amazon link for the book
When people find out that I do creative writing, fairly often they will say to me, “I’ve been thinking of doing that, but ___________.” Or, “I have an idea for a book, but __________.” And they tell me some reason why they haven’t started writing yet, or why they got stalled, or . . . whatever. They seem to feel guilty about not writing and think they should apologize to me, a person who is writing. But I know what a huge commitment of time and energy writing actually is; and the longer I write, the more I’m convinced that writing is not for everyone. This post is respectfully dedicated to those who think they should write but have never quite gotten around to it. To those good souls, I say that perhaps you do not really want to write, and that is perfectly okay. Maybe you are getting more out of life by spending your time on other things. Here are some completely valid reasons not to write:
- Don’t write if deep down you don’t really like to write. Often people think that they would enjoy creative writing, but by its very nature writing can actually be really tedious, especially for people who are naturally social and active. Sitting on your hind end hour after hour laboring over the same three very frustrating pages is NOT fun. I personally find the writing process rewarding, but I certainly won’t blame anyone who you doesn’t have the patience for it.
- If you don’t really like reading, then writing is not for you, either. A person who doesn’t read much will not have absorbed a strong enough sense of how written language is constructed and paced. This is not a criticism, it’s just an observation. If you don’t like to read, then you don’t have enough enjoyment of the written word to stick with writing for the long haul. There are other modes of creative expression, and something other than writing would probably suit you better.
- Writing is probably not for you if you want things to be finished quickly. Murphy’s Law: Nothing is as easy as it looks. Everything takes longer than you think it will. If anything can go wrong, it will. All of this really applies to writing. A good finished manuscript usually requires much more time and correction than the author cares to calculate. A piece that was dashed off in a short creative spurt is probably either a) a miracle or b) something far clumsier and problematic than the author realizes. Option B is about a zillion times more common than A. The poor author will find out all about the clumsiness and problems in his work when other people read it. And that brings me to the next point:
- If you are easily hurt by criticism and really have a hard time getting past it, then maybe you shouldn’t write. Or you should think about keeping your writing private. Because it’s inevitable that when other people read your work, not every reaction is going to be positive. Some people may love your work. But others will disagree with it, misunderstand it, be offended by it, be bored with it. They may get hung up on details and miss the overall point. They may begin reading the story and then never finish it. Worse yet, they may read a little bit and then post a scathing review online. These reactions from readers can be very painful to a sensitive writer. This is especially true, I think, if the subject matter is deeply personal. And if the writer is already facing other hardships in her life, then this kind of criticism can feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I say this with all empathy: there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak,” as the book of Ecclesiastes says, and at vulnerable points in our lives it may be best to consider whether we’re really ready to share our work.
Next post will address more perfectly valid reasons not to write: Don’t write to hurt other people; don’t write for people who don’t want to read; don’t spend time at your desk writing when you truly are needed elsewhere.