Seventeen was a profoundly memorable age for me, as that was when I wrote my first novel. It finished at around eighty pages of Japanese manuscript paper—little more than a short story if I think back now. But at the time it felt as though I had written something exceedingly long. When I wrote my next novel in university, I used a word processor, so this initial work—or attempt, or whatever it deserves to be called—would be the only time that I ever drafted fiction by hand. The implements I used were a mechanical pencil and eraser.
Although I didn’t think anything of my age then, since my novelistic debut so many people have asked when it was that I started penning fiction that I have increasingly felt there to be some kind of significance in the answer: neither sixteen, nor eighteen, but seventeen. I suppose if I hadn’t become a novelist at all, this age might have been even more deeply etched in my memory, from asking myself what possessed me to write such a thing at that time. In fact, I seem to have vaguely anticipated this alternate life path at the age of seventeen; the novel I wrote was about a typical company man who reminisces over his Tonio Kröger-like childhood.
It simply isn’t the case that people always write fiction hoping to become a novelist. Many write stories suddenly and inexplicably, irrespective of their age, gender, or level of fame. Setting out to write a novel when the idea strikes is a vaguely embarrassing endeavor for non-professionals. Yet clarifying the reason for these feelings is by no means a straightforward matter. Writing spontaneously, without consideration for who might read the end product, can sometimes save the writer from an existential crisis.
At seventeen, I myself did not start out wishing to become a novelist. I would not be seized by such a lofty notion until some time later. I had read widely, but the gulf that separates reading fiction from writing it can seem as vast as it is small. I simply wrote because I wanted to. I had experimented on occasion with scribbling daily thoughts in a notebook. Here was the first time that I was stricken with the irresistible urge to get down a whole novel, if one can call it that.
The result was a mess that, as hinted at above, displayed the blatant influence of Thomas Mann while obviously falling short of such august company. Not one of the people kind enough to read it—my elder sister, the teacher of our Japanese class at school, the classmate who would later end up at Tokyo University of the Arts—pointed to the early spark of radiant genius, though neither did they pan it entirely. Rather, wary of me for having produced such a thing out of the blue, they all gave me genuinely considerate, and gently consoling, feedback.
I couldn’t help being somewhat disappointed at their reaction, but part of me was also relieved, and I went on to devote myself to studying for my university entrance exams. In keeping with the affinity I felt for Mann, I had a great desire to fit in with a healthy civic society, so I thought I might as well aim for law school, a discipline as far removed from literature as possible.
Strangely, when I reread my early post-debut stories today, I feel no embarrassment whatsoever. Here and there I spot patches of weak, immature writing. But sometimes I also find myself admiring these stories as I would someone else’s work, and while there are skills I have acquired after many years honing my craft, I tend to think that there is also something I have lost.
And yet the novel that I wrote at seventeen is different. I have never reread it since. I toyed with the idea of pulling it out after twenty-four years for the purposes of this essay, but lost all desire to do so before I could recall where I put it. It would seem that this work does indeed embarrass me in some indefinable way.
Does this mean that people are not novelists so long as they are still writing novels that will embarrass them when they look back on them later? This strikes me as a premature conclusion.
As it turns out, the sudden alighting of creative inspiration and the drained stupor after it runs its course were not unique to my adolescent writing experience. They continued to recur more or less unchanged after I became a novelist, and even persist today. At seventeen, I thought of it as an odd transient pathology, then suffered a relapse not long after starting university. Now that I write novels for a living, I would be in serious trouble if I was ever completely cured, but I have managed to resolve a number of issues through writing. Actively trying to become afflicted with a condition one should have already overcome is, after all, an insalubrious activity at best, and readers might feel some reluctance to join me for the ride.
Originally appeared in Subaru, January 2017
Translated from the Japanese by Eli K.P. William
※ This essay is included in the collection of essays, “The Thinking Reed”(Japanese only）.