Identity, Literacy, Writing

Be the Book

I think all frustrated writers, those in the fits and starts, the various stages of creation and denial, dream of becoming the next great American novel.  Like the bedraggled outcasts wandering around in the flickering firelight murmuring lines from books at the end of the Fahrenheit 451 film, we imagine our stories and us as one, words burgeoning forth from our being.


When I first started to take my dream seriously, I mentioned it to a close friend.  As we discussed the perils of the publishing world (read: nearly impossible to enter), she suggested, that since I taught middle level ELA and studied that literature extensively, I write young adult literature: an up-and-coming worthy field and one not as constricted by that impermeable culture (at least at the time).

I had the workings of a character already, her life – or at least neurosis – already well on its way.  And her neurosis, while certainly presenting itself in an adult way then, could easily be adapted to any stage of the human condition.  So I imagined Kathryn as a high school senior, about to embark on the most significant journey of her life thus far – with no freakin’ clue where to go.

I drafted her all the way through her preparation for graduation, her stretching and breaking, hitting rock bottom, and starting to put the pieces back together, shedding her sarcastic armor in favor of some spiritual guidance.  She hasn’t reached her destination at the end of the draft, but she’s got her suitcase packed and some of the itinerary fleshed out.

Only one problem: my YA novel wasn’t exactly YA.  It straddled the line between adolescence and that liminal space beyond.  Transitional, I believe they’d call it.  And when I looked back over what I’d done, it was the time after she’d left high school that I liked the most.  Broken into two parts, the second was longer, stronger, and more developed.  Had I written Part One to satisfy the YA gods before I got to the meat of what I really wanted?

Kathryn was born in one of the first depressive periods of my life – even though I didn’t necessarily know it at the time.  Not to say that I didn’t feel the movings of it in high school (particularly at the end where I chose to place the beginning of Kathryn’s story), but it’s been a definitive part of my adult experience.  And I know what Kathryn grows into, in this alternate universe where a spiritual awakening didn’t occur in post-graduate studies.  Not to say she’s not an amazing person as a young woman, but holding her to the fire longer strengthens her mettle even more.

And now the true question: would this novel be stronger and serve the world better by seeing a woman through her darkest days of mental illness and how she somehow comes out the other side?  Is that what this story is meant to be and I was trying to cram it into some other mold?  Yes, I could make it work – and well – in its other incarnation, but would I be ignoring what it’s been trying to tell me from the beginning?

Have you ever known the answer before you’ve asked the question, but need to go through this circuitous route before you trust yourself?  Or not even trust, but just listen to that little voice that’s been there all along?

Peter Johnson told me you have to write the story the way it’s meant to be written.  You can’t worry about convention or trend or even length.

Maybe I’ve finally learned that all you need to worry about is being true to yourself and your characters.  Maybe now I can be the book.

anxiety, Living, Writing

Back to the Future

When I was a kid, particularly a teenager, the only time I would clean my room was when I had a report to do. Might seem like faulty logic, but the crippling thought of sitting down and starting a report actually made cleaning my room look like a fun endeavor. I had to clear off the desk before I could sit at it to write, no? And Mom had been after to me to clean for some time now. It needed to be done!

By the time it was apparent I could not put off said report-writing any longer, I would become a conglomeration of the many phrases my mother often used to describe me: running around like a chicken with its head cut off, burning the candle at both ends, pulling through in the eleventh hour. And while it was undoubtedly stressful and quite a haphazard way of doing things, I would always finish the report – and usually quite well. I’d get some inspiration at the last minute and write like a fiend until I’d proven my point – much to my mother’s chagrin. While she did not want to see me fail in school, she frowned upon my methods. Clean room or no, I think I made her more nervous than I did myself.

Procrastination and spontaneous ‘Hail Mary’s have always been my way. Being out of college for over a decade now (ugh – how did that happen?), the phenomenon hasn’t been as apparent, but it still exists. Knowing I have a week until my daughter’s birthday party, I’ll putz around the house all week and stay up until 2 AM the night before scrubbing toilets and baking cakes (not at the same time). Well aware that the parade that runs close to our house happens the second Saturday of June every year, I’ll be planting containers with patriotic-colored flowers at dusk the night before. I’ve just shifted the focus from class work to housework. Though maybe if I had more papers to write, my house would be cleaner – ha!

But I am writer. As a writer not under contract, I use self-imposed deadlines to keep me active and productive. I follow my writers’ group guidelines of submitting a week before our meeting. I post to my blog at least once a week, every Thursday. Except for weeks like this. I’ve fallen off the wagon, people. And because, as far as I can tell, most cases of procrastination are born of crippling ideas of perfectionism, I am paying for it. Oh, the guilt.

I’m in the middle of revising my young adult novel. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they love the revision process, struggling through the draft process just to get to it. As someone who loves to wait till the last minute and work off an epiphany and has problems with spatial relations (chapter reorganization, wha?), it’s trying to say the least. So instead of figuring out how to fix the problem in the chapters I was due to submit to my group, I went into cleaning mode. Luckily, I had the perfect excuse for rationalization. My friend was coming over with her baby and he needed a clean floor to frolic on, no?

We had a lovely visit, and spirits buoyed by my ordered surroundings, I even strapped myself to the computer after they left and fixed the problem (I think – we’ll see how next week’s meeting goes!). But, like a game of dominoes, my cleaning pushed the writing tile back a day, which pushed the blog tile back. Hence, today’s post should have been yesterday’s.

But no sense living in the past with its failed promises and rumpled to-do lists. I may relive my bad behavior patterns from time to time, but it’s a waste of time to punish myself for them. Trying to change them bit by bit would be good, but being aware of them is a start, right? I also need to acknowledge what such behaviors say about me. I do work best under pressure. And while it’s starting to make me as crazy as it used to make my mother, it still does offer a certain level of success. And all of us really are just stuck between past and future. I guess it works to operate within some combination of the two.