Good-Bye, First Novel
The beginning and ends of my nights are spent in a semi-conscious dream state where I solve major issues like where my daughter’s spring jacket is and what I’m going to plant in the garden. I have to admit to being slightly bitter about the domestic nature of my mental wanderings. Sometimes, though, I solve a major problem – the kind of problem that had me on the fence for five plus years and had kept me awake for many nights.
It started quite ignominiously right here on this blog, during my first year of blogging. In October 2012, I started to hear murmurings about NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month in November of each year. Writer friends kept asking if I were going to do it.
I was 45 years old. My daughter was 8 and my mother-in-law was needing more help as her Alzheimer’s progressed. I was working from home part-time doing bookkeeping. That was the year I went out of character and got a tattoo. I’d been training in Taekwondo the last year and tried to learn Japanese ink painting. It was easy enough to see I was in the grip of middle-aged curiosity, trying to define myself beyond employee and parent and wife. And I was definitely game to write a novel in a month.
The funny thing is, while I always wanted to be a writer, I hadn’t really thought of myself as being a writer. When I was in 5th grade, horribly shy and out of step, I had a kind teacher named Mr. Dunn. He encouraged me to write and helped me to publish bad poetry in the local paper. I was thrilled when he had my classmates debut my epic play Snow White and the Five Dorks. Spoiler alert: the wicked stepmother gets eaten by toxic Odor Eaters. I had an undeveloped sense of humor at 10. That really hasn’t changed.
I did not take my creative endeavors seriously, always feeling like a jack of many trades, master of none. The dilettante. The hobbyist.
November 2012 would change that. Despite being toasted on Nyquil most of the month as my family enjoyed a round robin flu season, I managed to write a skeletal novel of 50,000 words. It had all the earmarks of a first-time novelist – sketchily autobiographical, great gaping chasms in the plot, characters who had all the charisma of cardboard cutouts. But I had done it and I began to see myself as a writer.
As I struggled through the second and third and fourth revisions, I hemmed and hawed, putting the novel aside for weeks at a time in the hopes I could come at the thing with a new perspective. I finish things, dammit. I don’t give up. I persist. This has been something I’ve prided myself on, something I saw as the only alternative to failure. I am now entering year six. My characters are fully developed, I know every intricacy of the plot by heart, every theme and idea has been unwound and rewoven into the fabric of my story.
And now I’m saying good-bye.
It happened at 3am on Monday morning. The tightness in my chest turned out to be a very fat cat staring me down for breakfast. With a rude shove, I rolled over intending to go back to sleep. My mind drifted. I’d put together my work plan for the week, just as I’ve done every Sunday for months now. Work plans that never quite came to fruition, although I’d made incremental progress. I’d been working on issues of procrastination and perfectionism that I thought were the hurdles. And then it came to me, floating in and settling on my brain. I am done. It’s time to move on.
I spent Monday backing up files and looking at all the versions I’d saved. All that work. All that time. But I’d spent more energy and time avoiding it than writing it. I hadn’t really enjoyed it after that initial buzz of completion. I wasn’t passionate about it and it no longer interested me. Would I truly mourn the fact that it would never be published?
This was a novel I’d pitched to agents and gotten positive responses, so I had learned to talk about my work. I’d learned four or five different ways to come at a novel, from mind mapping to index cards to plotting or letting the story go where it wanted to go. I’d become better at dialogue and characterization. I learned that plot cannot be everything.
I became adept at using Scrivener, which was not intuitive for me, but has become profoundly useful in reorganizing scenes. Because of my hunger to get better at writing, to fix the damned albatross of a novel that I’d been lugging about, I began to read with intent. My writing has improved exponentially because I now read more challenging work.
One of the biggest lessons I learned, in the words of Lorrie Moore, is that writing is more important for me than being a writer; it is very easy to conflate social media platforms and blogging and getting a business card and going to conferences with being productive, when productivity lies in the doing, not the being. Everything else can happen after the doing and it won’t feel like playing dress-up.
The struggle made me look for ways over and around my personal obstacles and bad work habits and distractions. I am learning to write without judging or editing, which has made me more productive many times over. My to-do lists these days no longer start with dishes or laundry. I write before I do anything else. So instead of feeling shame at the failure, I feel gratitude for all the lessons that will eventually get me where I’m going.
I drifted back to sleep on Monday, feeling happier than I have in a long time. I get to write a new story.