i finished my novel*

*Draft four. Saying “I finished draft four” doesn’t make a snappy title.

People! I finished the fourth draft draft of my novel!

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I didn’t think I’d ever do this. I wrote the first real draft (I’ve been kicking around these characters + this story for over a decade) my senior year of college. I hammered out pages upon pages during lectures, and when I was studying, I’d make deals with myself: “Finish reading this article, and you can write for twenty minutes.” “Finish this section of your thesis, and you can write for the rest of the night.” When I finished that first draft, I was surprised to find myself at the end. I’d been following the rope so blindly that I hadn’t stopped to ask myself what it was I creating. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, the end of the rope. I’d run out of story.

It was a brutally cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was the only person on the street when I walked to the nearest copy to print and bind my novel. I took a blue pen to my novel as soon as I got home. After a harrowing second and third draft that made me wonder if I even wanted to write, I made a big deal about putting this story aside to pursue other projects. Then I ran back to it for a week, because I felt like I’d failed my characters. Then I put it back on the shelf. Then I wrote 60 pages of something new in two months, and let it languish for three. I berated myself for not being able to make up my mind. I told myself that I had one month, and if I could pound out 20,000 words of draft four in that time, I could return to draft four. I spit out 30,000. Then I filled two steno pads with a new story so dark I had to quit writing it so I could stop dreaming about drowned children being pulled out of lakes. Then I knocked on the door again to see if my characters, my friends, would still visit me. This went on for years.

In March of this year, I wrote myself a note and put it on my bulletin board. You just need to bring Ana home. I gave myself a deadline: April 30. I blew it off, and gave myself another one: May 31. It stuck.

On May 28: 92,518 words.

This book has been the boyfriend I can’t quit, but it’s also been a lifeline to some of my darkest days. I was fourteen when my main character, Ana, came to me, flawed and broken and tired of running from herself. It took me until I was twenty-four to realize that I was writing my way through my own redemption.

I’m at odds with what I do next. Part of the reason I put this novel aside so many times is because I’ve genuinely wondered if I should look at this novel as my teacher, but use it as a springboard to create something new. Something, possibly, publishable. Not everything I write needs or deserves to see the light of day. But what I can’t figure out is whether that’s the case for this novel. I love my characters, and I think I’ve written a moving story about family, redemption, and loss. I also think I’ve written an overly complicated timeline that veers towards sentimentality, and maybe doesn’t give my female character the autonomy she deserves. I just don’t know.

I have a few people reading it right now, and I’ve asked (read: begged) them to give me an up or down vote on whether or not I work to get this story submission ready. I’m comfortable with the idea that no one beyond my family and close friends will read this novel, but I’m haunted at the prospect of making that decision.

(As an aside,  hmu if you want to dive 292 pages deep into my brain and are willing to be more honest than mom/dad/boyfriend).

For all the “what’s next” questions, I frankly don’t really care about the quality of the work right now. It’s enough that I wrote it. This scared, lonely woman came to me when I was fourteen and mourning the loss of a family home, and she stuck with me long enough to become a real person. I followed the rope she threw me through the dark. I followed it a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and for the first time, it feels like a real novel.

Last night, my boyfriend drove me through Wisconsin’s rolling fields. He didn’t realize this, but he took me to the land upon which I build my novel. We listened to Jason Isbell, the artist I leaned most heavily on for inspiration. He told me again, and again that he was proud, and I wondered if I was too. I spent this past week feeling proud, yes, and relieved, but also unmoored. I finished, but what I did I finish? I FINISHED, but have I? I finished, but what do I do now?

It seems symbolic, and almost providential that I finished now, as my partner and I stand on the cusp of our next act. This novel is so much a novel of Minnesota, of where I’ve been and what I’ve anchored myself to. I used this story, first, as a way to mourn the loss of a home that had been in my family for years, but as I continued to write, I used it to mourn — and then reclaim — the parts of myself I thought I’d lost. Years ago, I wrote ” a woman does not let herself remain a broken thing,” and then I made that same promise to myself.

It’s a victory, people, even if I don’t yet know what kind. I finished something big. finished it. Not gave up on it, not quit on it, not tried to forget about it. I stuck with my people, and they stuck with me, and if writing has taught me one thing it’s that there’s beauty in the attempt.

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.

what stories do I want to tell?

death_to_stock_photography_bonus_floral_6
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.

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 listened to a pastor talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at living life well. Then he got married, and all his expertise on life went 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.