When I was first asking for the privilege of blogging for GRIT, one of the things that I said I wanted to write about was “the relationship between everyday life and the inner creative life,” by which I meant … well, I’m not entirely sure what I meant, except that as an aspiring novelist I know that I have days where my personal and professional lives dovetail gracefully with my creative work, and days when they … um … don’t. The topic seemed relevant to my suburban homesteading aspirations because being a novelist is all about sustaining oneself – not with shelter and food so much as with courage and creative energy; fortitude and perseverance – although, come to think of it, what is any homesteading effort, however suburban, without these qualities?
It’s been a rough week. There’s been weeping, and wine, and deep sleeps, not to mention five days and counting of cold, bone-chilling, grey autumn rain. Some animal ate the tops off three of my broccoli plants. And to top it all off, I read possibly the best novel I’ve ever read whose author is still alive; a novel so good that it caused me to despair of my own work-in-progress and to resent my upbringing, not to mention many of the life choices that I’ve made up till now. And did I mention that I’m on the very cusp of turning forty?
All of this is my way of saying that something has significant has happened. I broke up with my novel – after 14 years.
That is, I broke up with half of it. I think that the other half and I should just be friends. Like, friends who don’t see each other all that often.
The good news is that I found one story in the manuscript which is complete in itself, and I have hacked away the overgrown thorny vines concealing it, much like the prince battling his way towards the waiting Sleeping Beauty. I have turned this unwieldy, sometimes-upwards-of-200K-word inconclusive monster into what might – just possibly – someday soon be a saleable manuscript; coming in neatly at under 70,000 words, thank you very much.
And I vow to never, EVER, again attempt to write a novel without an outline.
I SWEAR IT!
It is no easy thing to let go of that on which you’ve secretly banked your whole future, and truth be told it’s not the first manuscript that I’ve had to abandon. I was listening to an interview on NPR a few days ago with the (now former) editor of the (now defunct) Gourmet magazine Ruth Reichl, and she said something that really stuck in me. She was basically describing having been a clumsy and homely child, and how her mother had reassured her by telling her, “When you find yourself, you will be beautiful.”
Isn’t that how we all feel? That until we’ve fully realized ourselves as what we know deep inside we have the potential to be (in my case until that first novel – especially that first novel – has been lovingly ushered out into the world by someone that isn’t related to me that believes in me) that we don’t yet fully exist in the world; that no one is seeing us; no one is appreciating us as we really are? That we are not yet beautiful?
I’ll admit I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself, but self-pity – neither the maudlin nor the righteous – makes a darn bit of difference.
What makes a difference (I’m thinking) is to admit that which one most loathes to admit – that something that I love, and in which I have invested every aspect of myself, has failed. Has died. I am not good enough. I cannot do it.
At least, that’s how it felt the first day – miserable, heartbreaking.
As the week went on, though, it felt more like having the strength to let go of characters, and long passages of beautiful (I swear!) writing, because I just can’t pull it all together, and because said characters and long passages of beautiful writing just don’t serve the greater purpose of the novel that I think that I can pull together; and which, in fact, by this past weekend, with the brambles out of the way, is suddenly coming together quite nicely.
I don’t think that this difficulty of mine in pruning my words is entirely unrelated to my dislike of thinning seedlings; I mean, aren’t they all beautiful? Don’t they all deserve a chance? Why CAN’T each one of the spindly little things become a full-fledged purple-topped turnip? Why must I pick and choose, or risk not having anything?
The thing is, I never want to do anything small. Who does? I want a HUGE garden. I want to feed the world with it. I want to have chickens, and a goat, and maybe a sheep, and … well, just everything that I could possibly need so that I don’t have to “need” anything else. And I want to write a book that is everything: fat and thick and intensely philosophical; I want to write an absolute doorstop of a book; a tear-inducing, life-altering, layers-of-wisdom-unpeeling, heartbreaking book. In fact, I wish I’d written this book – Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, the book that broke my heart this week – because it whispered to me everything that I suspected and really needed to hear about life: that happy endings are not necessarily what you think that they might be; that some things are wrong for you and are not meant to be; that I am “pure-hearted and lovely, and have never done a moment’s wrong. But I am a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks my heart.”
You must read this novel. It’s truly superb.
I’ve made a few interesting observations about my writing life and my writing self in the past few years. First of all, the last time I got really excited about a book; the last time I read a book and thought, yes! YES! It was Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I had no idea, until after I finished this novel, that it was a “young adult” novel. I picked it up off of a new fiction table in Barnes & Noble, where it lay among all kinds of other titles, none of which struck me as remotely “young adult.” Then, as now, I have no idea what exactly YA is supposed to mean. All I knew is that the book spoke to me (how could you not be intrigued by a book that is narrated by Death, the character?) and that I began to reconsider my own work; how I tended towards younger protagonists with passionate intensity and a youthful lack of scope, how perhaps the field of YA novels is the one in which I ought to be writing; and how perhaps that is what I’ve always been groping towards, but didn’t know it, because like my intensely passionate and short-sighted protagonists, I had a mistaken understanding of my place in the world and consequently of what my life ought to be.
In fact, it was only because of this mini-epiphany I had after reading The Book Thief that, years later, I was wandering around in the young adult section of a book store at all. I was looking for something … for a place to be, I think, for where I might fit, for something to aspire to, for an aperture into a world in which I would be beautiful.
And there I saw Tender Morsels.
I would normally never have entertained reading this book. At first glance it seems like everything that I’m not; like everything that I don’t like. I think its genre is fantasy, which I don’t and never have read. I normally eschew magic and prefer realism. But when I saw this physically beautiful book on the shelves, read the brief excerpt on the back cover (quoted, having first taken the liberty of changing the POV, above), and then the amazingly sophisticated first paragraph, that seemed so very “full-grown adult” to me, I threw caution to the wind and bought it.
Months later, I finally read it.
And among other gifts it gave me, I suddenly see that there are whole genres out there that are pretty much unknown to me, and in which there is doubtless great work waiting to be discovered – fantasy and science fiction to name but a few – which means that it’s almost like I’m a kid again with the whole reading world ahead of me; something I have over the years despaired of ever being again.
The only hard and fast rule that I seem to be able to discern about what makes something YA is that the protagonist be a young person, but the field seems to be wide open as to whether “young person” means 15 or 22. Here’s what I remember about being “young”: that everything seemed to have its root in a principle; that everything had the severity of fate, the weight of destiny; and that the future was made or broken in a moment. Life didn’t seem so long – perhaps because there was so much more of it ahead of me than behind. When I was young, love was magic and eternal, fated and inevitable. Every moment as a “young adult” was steeped in significance. Everything that happened, good or bad, was part of the story. It was all driving me somewhere. Something was always manifesting. As a young adult I thought about death, and about my life as a whole, as a complete work, fairly regularly. What would I be, what would posterity think of me (because of course posterity would think of me) if I died right now? I never think about dying, or about my life as a whole, as if it were a singular work of art anymore.
And anyway, nowadays I no longer understand works of art as flashes of brilliance. I understand them as the result of long, hard, often joyful, occasionally exuberant and occasionally painful and sometimes even boring work – and for that matter, marriage and parenthood and gardening are kind of like this too. You have your moments of being able to look upon the whole of what you’ve accomplished with satisfaction, with pride, but most of the time you’re just in it and struggling, and doing the best you can because however it may turn out, it’s where you want to be. Over the long haul it is neither romantic or exciting (most of the time) but pretty much like doing any other work that has personal meaning and that one wants to do.
Maybe it’s that perspective that differentiates the “young adult” from the “old” one. And maybe part of my problem these past few years has been that all the real work – all the best work – in any field, is done by “young” people, be they 14, or 40 or 80.
So what I find myself wondering after my week-long breakdown is whether or not what makes a novel YA isn’t anything concrete in a story (like character age, point of view, etc.) at all so much as it is a certain state of mind, and as a state of mind, it can speak equally to sixteen and to forty, in so much as it touches that place inside of us that – fresh or scarred, optimistic or jaded, bored or misused, poor or privileged, hopeful or hopeless – is nonetheless young; is nonetheless still harboring a sense that there is always more to the story, that disappointment and heartache is emboldening us and preparing us for something wonderful; that the story of one’s life matters; that one is unique and significant and not only capable of but destined to make a difference in the world and to do great work, and yearning, yearning, yearning to do it.
So, to try to bring things back – in breaking up with much of my novel I’m not letting go of that on which I’ve secretly banked my whole future – that would be my inner GROWN-UP talking. My inner young adult sees everything I’ve done and been through up till now as landing me finally at a significant and fruitful moment in my life where great success is just around the corner, where a time will come in which I will never do anything that I don’t want to do (can anyone say, commute?), where any day now I’m going to stand in front of the Magic Mirror and be told that I am the fairest in the land.
I am poised.
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