I Can Do That Too!

January 26, 2009

Aunt Lovey used to tell me that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed a writer’s voice. “Read,” she’d say, “and if you have a writer’s voice, one day it will shout out, ‘I can do that too!'”
                    — Lori Lansens, Canadian fiction writer
from The Girls

It looks like I’m going to be a Blog 365 dropout. The author of a blog I read from time to time said she’s okay with being a “blogging underachiever” and was striving for 75% of 365, or 274 posts in a calendar year. I’m now a week past the day I said I was a week past posting every day. I still have drafts in the queue about my transcendent experience in Cape May, but instead of finishing them immediately, I’ve let them cool as I got used to this new energy in me, a forward-moving impulse unusual in January, when we’re headed into the darkest time of the year and my old friend Melanie the Black Bitch (the embodiment of my depression) lurks nearby.

I took today’s epigraph from a novel I began reading just before I left for Cape May. I heard about it this summer from Judy Clain, the agent at Little, Brown who handled it. I was assigned to her “meet an agent” session at Bread Loaf. Each of us general contributors is allowed to have one agent meeting and one editor meeting. Writers with a completed manuscript can have a one-on-one session. The rest of us are encouraged to sign up for a group session in which ten or fifteen hopefuls listen to a publishing professional give the bad news (usually) about how competitive the literary fiction market is, how most agents won’t look at your work unless you have a track record of publications in short fiction, how it’s hard, especially if you don’t write short fiction, to build that track record unless you have an agent.

I skipped such meetings the last two or three years because I was still at the same point I’d been since 2003 — an aspiring writer with no published short fiction, a three-quarters complete historical novel that I still have trouble thinking about (the link is to the blog piece about how my workshop leader, Lynn Freed, apparently did her best to crush every molecule of self esteem I might have had about myself as a writer), and 10,000 words of a promising mainstream contemporary novel. But something pushed me to go this year. Maybe this forward-moving energy that’s pushing me now was already at work.

Judy Clain was, like most of the publishing professionals I’ve met at Bread Loaf: positive, gracious, and encouraging while still being realistic about an individual’s chances of seeing her book on the shelves down at Barnes & Noble. She grew up in South Africa and had a musical way of saying the name of Lori Lansens’s novel, something between “gorls” and “gurls.” The novel is about craniopagus twins, the girls of the title, joined at the head without possibility of separation who, as the book opens, are at age 30 about to become the longest surviving such conjoined twins. Reviewer Diane Christine says the book is about “the importance of connections, and the distance that exists within even the closest of bonds.” Maybe it was that forward-moving energy again, but I left that session thinking not Wow! I’ll never have an idea that edgy, that intriguing but Wow, I can do that. I can learn to write with such grace that an agent will be telling aspiring novelists about my book.

As usual, it took me the whole of the fall to make good on the resolutions I brought down from the mountain. I sought to borrow The Girls from the library rather than buy it, and I had to wait for it. I let work on my novel slide once I knew I had a suitable section to send to Cape May. As it happened, I opened the novel to discover that the narrating twin is describing her struggles to write her own story just as the whirlwind of positive energy that was Carol Plum-Ucci’s workshop was about to sweep me up.

I spent most of yesterday the way I spent most of the Sundays of my teaching career, making my lesson plans. And today I followed through. I did little that wasn’t related to my novel. I didn’t write any new text yet, but I drew together the materials I’ll need to write five new scenes, and everything is in place to fall into fiction tomorrow.

By coincidence, I fell into a discussion in an online community of writers I belong to about the toll that the writing life can exact from a relationship. One of the members has faced the fact that if she moves forward into the graduate school opportunity she’s been offered, her partner of seven years will not follow her. Further, he has made it clear that a long distance relationship will not satisfy him, and if she undertakes two years of academic work that will keep her 500 miles from him for weeks at a time, their relationship is over.

Amid all the commiseration and all the encouragement to accept the idea that maybe he is not the right man for her, one thing struck a chord with me. “Being a writer means being in a long distance relationship. Always.” said one experienced writer. Your primary relationship, especially when you are actively working on a novel, is with your characters and the world you create for them and inhabit with them. Whether your partner is on the other side of the country or the other side of the house, you are in a place he cannot go, and you will know intimately “the distance that exists within even the closest of bonds.”

Food for thought as I prepare to accompany my characters on the journeys I have imagined for them.

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