What stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a
National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

All the Books: What I Read in 2015

BooksBooks2015 was a strange and interesting year of reading for me. I’ve always, always been an avid reader–even in college, when my peers were loath to even look at another page of writing, I continued to seek out books as both an escape and a lifeline. Except for one lonely, bored summer, reading, and reading a fair amount, has always been a given for me, but this year, I started to feel something new happening in my literary diet.

I still can’t quite put my finger on what was happening–or why–but here’s what I did that felt so different: I finished books I didn’t particularly like. I re-read to understand either myself or the text in a deeper way, not simply to burrow into comfort. I read in a wider variety of formats–essays, short stories, memoir, non-fiction. I pushed passed my own literary snobbery, and let myself read what was interesting + what was on my shelf. I finally read a few of those must-read books that I buy and keep unopened on myself because they intimidate me. I also bought books–largely from second-hand stores–at a vicious and unreserved clip, always reasoning that, for a dollar, it can’t hurt to try.

 

As I look back on all the books that I read, it’s clear that I was seeking to re-define how + why I read. I read to remain alive and to remain awake, to find clarity, to soften my heart to in-real-life people I meet, to make me a better writer. I read (and write) because telling stories is both the solution and the mystery, the lock and the key.

So here’s a snapshot of all that I read in the past year.

  1. Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx: This book thought too much of itself. Proulx radicalized me to the power of the novel when I read The Shipping News at fifteen–I didn’t know that you could do what she did to language, didn’t know you could tell the story that she told. Maybe it’s because I expected the universe of this book, or maybe because that’s what she tried to deliver, but by the time I finished this book, it had demanded all my respect and none of my affection. She charts the story of one accordion, and that, at least, is a fascinating and complex narrative to tell.
  2. The Awakening, Kate Chopin: I seem to return to this book ever three or four years. Each reading and a new layer of mastery and beauty unveils itself. It’s a slim, masterful hurricane, and for everyone who read it in high school and forgot about it, do yourself a favor and READ IT AGAIN.
  3. The Best Yes, Lysa TerKeurst: This book had a few good practical tips on how to prioritize–how to say “no” so that you can say “yes” to your “best yes.” It’s also a fog of privilege, simplicity, and yay-rah-rah. A blog post would have sufficed.
  4. California: A History, Kevin Starr: California is fascinating, and if you need to learn about the state (as I wanted to for my second-novel-project), read Kevin Starr.
  5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Every summer, I read “must-read” book, and this year it was the The Color Purple. I won’t say too much, because me telling you that this book is good, fantastic, beautiful and human and devastating and hopeful, is to say what everyone else has already been saying for the past 30 years.
  6. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: Another fog of privilege which, I realize, is the point of the plot, but I was disappointed. I picked it on the review that Kwan was the Edith Wharton of twenty first century China. To me, it read like a beach book. A good one, but no Age of Innocence.
  7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson: I went to Chicago for our two year anniversary, and I read this while were there. With Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio turning this story into a movie, there is and will continue to be hype upon hype, but what fascinated me the most was how true Larson’s assertion that the 1893 World’s Fair changed the world. If nothing else, this was the fair that introduced America to PBR. (And all the hipsters when ahh).
  8. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: Another audiobook. The perfect companion for 600+ miles of driving, and so engaging. I did find some of the things that were said about this book (fog of privilege, self-indulgent) to be true, but she woke up, changed her life, then wrote about it with a praiseworthy degree of vulnerability–and that is brave.
  9. The Forgotten GardenKate Morton: I read a different Kate Morton book, The Distant Hours, a few years back, and loved it. Female protagonists, Gothic houses + and their secrets, WWII, and quick story. Then I read this, and realized that it was the same book (with a less interesting backdrop) than the earlier one. A bit canned, but Morton knows how to move a story, and that is something I need to know more about.
  10. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin: This was a reread, and it was the book that taught me that not all books are meant to be re-read. My entire life, I’ve been happy to return the same stories again and again, for both comfort and learning reasons, but this was the first book that I returned to fully expecting something big and was let down. I read the whole series a few years back–burned through them–and I picked up book 1 expecting to get thrown back into the drama and thrall. I wasn’t. For me, this kind of heavily plot-driven, heavily-fantastical book is only good one time. (The show however, I’ll watch again and again and again).
  11. The Green Mile, Stephen King: My first Stephen King, and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t love reading a serialized novel in the format of a traditional novel–the necessary repetitions irritated me to no end. Plus, I have a feeling that Stephen King is supposed to be some kind of scary/creep you, so in 2016, I’m going to give Dolores Claiborne a go.
  12. Harry Potter, 1-7, J.K. Rowling: These were also rereads, but never have have they disappointed. I very much grew up with Harry Potter, my mother reading them to be before Prisoner of Azkaban was released. When cancer consumed my grandmother, and her care consumed my mother, I reread Harry Potter on a loop. I was eight, and these books were both comfort and explanation for the pain and mystery of death. When anxiety wrenched me from myself, I clung to these books as a raft. This summer, I reread for pleasure, not for catharsis, and I learned. Because the stories are tattooed onto me, I was able to pay attention, instead, to how Rowling wrote them, how she moved the plot, how she wrote her dialogue, how she build her characters. Then when I finished them, I wept, and said that no other books are worth reading. Par for the course.
  13. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova: This book soured pretty quickly after I finished it. I loved Dracula, and wrote several lengthy term papers on it in college, and my love of Stoker’s novel propelled me through this one. While I loved reading a massive novel dedicated to the detailed analysis of primary sources, in the end, Kostova pulled out far too many threads and didn’t tie them up neatly enough, which is especially disappointing in a novel as long as this one was).
  14. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This was, without competition, the best book I read all year, and easily one of the best I’ve ever read in my lifetime. It was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. Go read it.
  15. Loving Day, Mat Johnson: This was another book that I read based upon a review, and was disappointed in. After 300 pages in Warren Duffy’s head, I just wanted out. That being said, it was a phenomenal and fascinating look into the experience of being bi-racial. Johnson has been vocal about bi-racial identity being both marginalized and misunderstood, and this novel felt like it was doing important work of excavating and illuminating what it mean to be bi-racial in a highly-radicalized America.
  16. Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True Life Novel, Fred Setterberg: Meh. I read it for research, because it is set in the type of suburb I’m writing about. Beyond that…
  17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich: Again, meh. It was quick and enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. (Except that it was my mother’s book, so I had to discuss if she also felt iffy about it).
  18. Night Over Water, Ken Follett: Chauvinist. Every woman in this book was clearly in idealized version of what Follett wants women to be (read: charmingly sparky, but ultimately submission, with giant breasts). I read to the end to find out what happens, then immediately stuck it in the give-away pile.
  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: Although a few books on my summer reading list went unread, I am so glad I made it a priority to return to this book. I get it now: the appeal, the human, the romance. Jane Austen is a master, and I should have never doubted her most beloved work.
  20. The Queen’s Fool, Philippa Gregory: I read She’s Come Undone and Wild within a two week window, and I was so electrified by the stories + writing in both that I found myself needing a break from all the greatness. This book happily coincides with a weekend getaway, and there’s something really indulgent about a reading something not-too-deep on vacation.
  21. She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb: See both note above and previous post on this book. I loved it.
  22. Something Happened, Joseph Heller: Second best book I read all year. I was assigned this text in my last semester of college, and although I wrote two essays (for two separate classes) on it, I never actually finished it. Reading this book is what I imagine riding a bull is like–you grab on, and hold on as tight as you can for as long as you can, except in this case, you absolutely should get to the very end. It works as both a historical snapshot of a particular moment in America’s history (post-war, post-baby-boom, pre-summer of love, pre-hippie burnout), and an incredibly comprehensive character study. I would not recommend this to many people, because it is so hard to read (700 pages inside one man’s head + paragraphs that can go on for pages), but it is so worth it if you get to the end.
  23. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe: The last audiobook I listened to this year, and again, it was a companion for a very long drive. I put this on my summer reading list, expecting a good celebrity memoir–some inner-circle gossip, the hard work and good luck it (often) takes to get famous, rounded off with some on-set stories about the West Wing. I got all that, and so much more. Rob Lowe has the gift of being both emotionally vulnerable and deeply straightforward. If you’re a Rob Lowe fan, read this. If you’re a memoir fan, read this. If you’re interested in a good story, read this.
  24. Volt, Alan Heathcock: The only full short story collection I read. It was electrifying (no pun intended). I read this as I was editing my own short story for publication, and it helped get the job done. It was also an intense, interesting, deeply compelling series of interconnected stories. It took me four years to read this book, and I am so.glad that I finally did.
  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: Another in a series of disappointing books. I had this on my shelf for years–such a good book, everyone said–and I just couldn’t get it up. It felt flat and stale, and for the last third of the book, I was only reading to finish.
  26. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed: There’s a reason why this book jumped onto the NYT Bestseller book in its first week and why Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights before it was published. Strayed is such the darling and titan of the literary world that there’s not much I can add, except that this book was so powerful. (Plus, my father-in-law knew her and her family well when she was a little girl, which is easily my coolest seven-degrees-of separation story).

I also read a whole landslide of short stories (and had one of my own published!), too many too track down and name individually.

All new year, all new books! What about you, what did you read in 2015? What are you planning to read in 2016?

On Writing Into the Unknown

DeathtoStock_NotStock2Last time I posted, I wrote about hitting “pause” on my first novel to pursue a new one. In the intervening time, I’ve written roughly 15,000 words (reason one why there has been quiet on this blog).

15,000 words feels immense, a whole ocean of language where I thought I only had raindrops. And I’m grateful for that, immensely glad that images have come to me and that scenes have bloomed up in my creative darkness.

But what I’m writing is hard. It’s stretching me.

I tried explaining this the other day: After nearly 10 years with the same characters growing up and revealing their voice, character, appearance, habits and mannerisms, it’s strange and stunted work to try to get to know new characters. The entire setting of my first novel was a fictionalization version of a real life town, real life house, real life land. One that I’d grown up with, and one that was tattooed onto my heart.

Now, I’m writing in California, in 1962. I have nothing about a few memories from childhood trips to San Diego and Los Angeles, and research. (I’m researching voraciously. Studying images and photographs, reading novels written during or set in my new space and time. Checking out dozens of books from the library at a time).

I once heard a pastor I like talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at being in that stage of life. Then he got married, and all that expertise he thought he had on life was out the window. And just when he started to feel like a pro at being married, he had kids. Unknowns and uncertainties and inexperiences compounding upon one another with each new step away from comfortable.

That’s how writing this novel feels. I figured out what it meant to write the story that makes up my first novel. Yes, there were (and still are) aspects of that work that would be difficult and daunting were I to pick it back up, but I knew where I was, what I was doing. It didn’t start comfortable, but by the end of September, when I officially packed it up, it had become a writerly second skin, something I slid into so easily.

And now! I have all new characters, a whole new setting, and one that I’m not naturally familiar with. I’m also experimenting with a child’s voice, using the eyes and experience of a young girl to explore confusion and fear and non-understanding. The smallness of a child’s world is an exercise in restraint. What do children see? How do they see it? What do they know and how do they know what they don’t know? It’s a good reason to pay attention to children, and to remember my own childhood. But because I’ve refrained from reading what I’ve written so far, I don’t know how well it’s working in my writing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing something new, something so unknown and in need of so much research, is a flood of fears. That I’m really too young to be attempting this level of emotional and narrative complexity. That it’s junk, that it’ll require slash-and-burn editing. That I will eventually have to hit “pause” on this too, and my computer will become a graveyard of failures. That I’m wasting precious time writing distinctly non-precious words.

I am fighting to counter these fears. These first 15,000 words probably are junk, and will absolutely need slash-and-burn editing, but what first draft doesn’t? I probably am too young and inexperienced for this level of complexity, but how else will I grow up? And why should ease ever be my goal? I may have to hit pause. It may take me two, three, four, fives tries to write something beautiful and shareable. It may take me double that number of drafts to get this novel into something beautiful.

And as far as time goes, whose time am I wasting? Whose timetables am I following or failing? If I’m writing to write, and I’m doing the writing, what is there to be anxious about?

If the first novel taught me anything, it was to just show up. To set a goal and to meet it. To care about production over perfection. (Perfect is the enemy of done). To find the joy in the words and in the characters and not in my own (and this world’s) ever shifting versions of success.

I feel a little all over the place here, but I write to understand, to process. I  hit my first blank-page fears this week. That choking tension of having something to say, and feeling so overwhelmed by the idea of saying it.

I’m naming all these fears and countering them, because I need to hold onto them as I write into the unknown. That writing is my passion project, and it’s a part of my heart, but it’s not the whole thing. That challenges are necessary to grow, and I could what-if myself into faux-panic if I tried hard enough. And that on most days, it’s the writing (along with a healthy combination of other factors) that keeps the real life panic at bay.

At the end of the day, I’m writing novels under an all but unpublished name. Nobody but me (and maybe my father) is waiting for my writing. My writing is a joy, and it should never be so damn serious.

When The Magic Moves: Putting Away My First Novel for A Second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

When It's Time to Quit

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.