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.

canstockphoto19927024I 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.

canstockphoto16261737November 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.

canstockphoto2884614I 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 canstockphoto29382733work 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.

28 thoughts on “Good-Bye, First Novel

  1. Congratulations! Your novel fulfilled its purpose, and you’re wise enough to see it. No small feat! If you’ve not read Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life,” please treat yourself to it as you move on. It’s slender, wonderfully insightful and frequently funny.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually have a copy of the Dillard book, having read it several years ago. I think I was ready to abandon this first novel a long time ago, but I couldn’t do it until I recognized the ground I gained working through it. It’s definitely time to let go!


  2. “I was in the grip of middle-aged curiosity” You have the best phrases!
    And I completely relate to the idea of not seeing yourself as a writer at some point-as a hobbyist always – that’s one of the things I’m trying to change myself. I wish you luck in writing your next story! I hope to hear about it.


    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I didn’t want to use “midlife crisis” because it really wasn’t one. I think part of the problem with not seeing myself as a writer was that I didn’t make writing a priority for the longest time, so I really wasn’t taking myself seriously as a creative person. I am hoping the second novel doesn’t take quite as long!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. No failure here that I can see either. I love the way you don’t give up. You think and analyze and question and push, and when you suddenly break through whatever obstacle has been blocking you, you SEE what’s revealed, no matter how different it is from what you were hoping for or expecting. Yep, you’ve written a novel, and it’s served its purpose as a training ground … Moving on… 🙂


    1. I think that is a whole skill set in and of itself – learning to let go without feeling like a failure. I waiver on it, but writing this post reminded me of all the things I’ve learned and tried along the way. Definitely bringing more skills to this next novel and a lot less paralytic fear.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Argh! I think I read that article last week, hence the phrase “better to write than be a writer” stuck in my head. Updated post to give credit and a link to her. I hate it when that happens – when you think you’ve thought something original and it was just something you’d read and forgotten about. Anyway, I enjoy her writing and have added her full new book to my reading list.
      I’m keeping at the writing and looking forward to hopefully a less arduous process on the second novel (at least that’s my delusion of the moment).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! Didn’t mean to call you out. I chalked it up to coincidence. Moore’s “Birds of America” is what got me back into reading short stories.
        I’ve made two attempts at two different novels since my last and can’t get any traction. So I’ve stopped. Why hurt myself? I’ll try something else when it needs to be told.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Michelle and wow…I can relate!
    I’ve gone through a lot of similar musings with my writing.
    My first novel attempt got hammered to death in my MFA writing workshops and the feelings of failure have kept me away from it for the last year since graduating.

    But I’ve bounced back, and am actually seeing some short story success now and am re-energized to get back to it.

    I think you’re just on the edge of the turn-around too!
    Keep writing 😎😂


    1. I missed this comment the first time around, Lisa – sorry for the delayed response. My first novel never made it into the light of day. My mother read my very first draft, which might have been a strategic mistake! Still, it felt like a workshop until itself. I feel better equipped to move onto the next one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve abandoned more than one novel–some allegedly finished, others barely begun. Only one wouldn’t let me abandon it and kept calling me back. I’m currently wrestling with it–again. The ones that didn’t call me back? I learned from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely learned from this one, which was “allegedly finished”. I just had to come to terms with the fact that it was time to move on. I thought this one kept calling me back, but I think a lot of it had to do with the idea that so much work would just end up filed away.

      Liked by 2 people

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