How’s the Book Going: The End and The Beginning

I sent the book to copyediting a few weeks ago, and I’m already primed to write the next one. I’ve reflected here on the value of order and discipline in one’s life in order to enable wildness and freedom in one’s art, and I’m craving wildness. I want to keep pushing myself artistically, a phrase I associated in my youth with images of nudity and splattered paint and all-night binges. Now, I have no idea what these new boundaries will look like, and that’s the exciting part. There is beauty in a well-executed risk. It also has to be recognizable as a risk, which means it cannot be entirely new, or entirely unrecognizable. Most of my creative output is recognizable. In fact, those are my selling points: I can make imaginary people sound real, and I can build invisible communities that resemble some of my own. So: What can I do with this power? Who am I writing for?

In this most recent book, I wrote for women who were overworked, who gave everything to everyone else in their lives, neglecting their own needs and desires. I wanted to emphasize lessons I’ve learned: the importance of slowing down, of not running from pain, of investing in my future rather than constantly reacting to the events of my own life in frustration or despair, as if I have no choice. Self-sacrifice is often seen as necessary and virtuous, but I wanted to play out the harm it can cause to self and others. I wanted to show that it is possible to look inward without losing all the outer parts of our lives: community, career, friendship, love. In fact, I wanted to explore a world where loving and healing oneself is the opposite of isolating. I wanted to show how hard it is to open yourself up without losing yourself altogether, but the line is worth finding every day. And if the people reading my book, whether through their circumstances or their current capacity, do not feel as if they can internalize or digest the ideas I’m putting forth, I can at least give them something immersive and pleasurable to read when they have some time to themselves.

Looking back, I did not set out with such careful intentions. Recalling a conversation with my editors at a truckstop in Iowa, I remember all I knew is that I wanted my character to go from “closed” to “open.” Looking ahead to the next project, I am not sure whether to bring more detail to my thematic plans, or to leave it simple and discover what I’m doing as I’m doing it. In my favorite projects, I’m led by a character’s voice first and foremost. I don’t think I could write without it. So, in the matter of what ideas I want the book to explore, I think I have to continue to trust what I hear. I think rather than insisting on shaping a story around certain themes, I have to let the themes arise from the character’s friction with their world. (Let it be known that we always map out the plot very deliberately, but sometimes the strongest emerging themes actually change the events of the story in the drafting process.) Pairing this trust in voice with a desire to push myself, perhaps I would like to connect to a type of voice I haven’t explored yet.

My characters tend to be smart, self-deprecating, anxious, and wary of emotions (which is probably a parlor trick to make their experience of emotional turmoil and triumph all the more profound). Though they resemble me in many ways, they are usually much more stubborn, passionate, and/or confrontational than I am (again: serving the story). Even then, they rarely dive blind or headfirst into anything. They’re always analyzing, ruminating, only taking leaps when they’ve fully convinced themselves intellectually, or have lowered their inhibitions purposefully. I’ve been kicking around the idea of indulging in another side of my psyche I rarely play with: optimistic, whimsical, well-intentioned but prone to delusion. I tried to explore it in grad school in a strange ghost tale set at a Christian college, but I was trying to do too much at once. The Memory Book‘s Sammie was certainly optimistic and a bit delusional, but she was also ambitious and determined. That kind of balance, I think, is necessary to make a voice like that work. A delusional workaholic. An optimistic bulldog. Leslie Knope was, admittedly, one of the earliest inspirations for Sammie’s voice. This new voice, while being much more emotional and impulsive than my usual cast of characters, should hold the same delightful contradictions.

I want to write the type of person who, for all her flaws, every community needs: someone who has the child-like insistence on imagining a better world and has the gall to make it possible.

1 comment

  1. Wow! I can’t wait to read it!! I am immensely proud of your ability to take a deep feeling or secret truth that is barely a whisper in the soul and bring it fully into reality through words.

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