Sunday, November 6, 2011

In Anticipation

Dear Joyce,
There are many reasons I’m not making the deadline to submit a memoir piece for the upcoming workshop. Perhaps most importantly is … I don’t have one. I mean, I have a few old narrative essays—some even garnered agents’ attention some years back, but the consensus was they lacked a cohesive thread and an offer of representation was not forthcoming. They were right. (Unless you considered me a cohesive thread.) MOMoir was on its way out and since I didn’t have a substantial platform (shoes didn’t count) they weren’t confident my collection would sell. It was recommended I try to turn it into fiction.
At first I assumed they were being polite. Turn it into fiction sounded like agent code for don’t-call-us-we’ll-laugh-at-you-over-drinks. Besides, about a decade earlier I HAD tried fiction and while character—or more specifically voice, had landed on the page with somewhat ease, plot … not so much. Plot eluded me. I’d managed to create layered, vivid characters brimming with angst, but by page twenty or so I sensed something was missing and lost momentum. In hindsight, I see that I’d equated that which eluded me with that which was evidence of my inherent incompetence. The conclusion: I/m not a real writer.
And yet I continued to write. I figured fiction wasn’t my genre and stuck with true to life experiences. This was especially practical since my true to life experiences were busy being born. Four of them in six years. As you know, motherhood is (among many things) chock full of the necessary components that make a good story: compelling characters, conflicting needs, high stakes and endless obstacles and/or epiphanies. Additionally (don’t tell anyone) mothering young children could also be(at times) profoundly boring. And lonely. I mean juxtaposed between delicious burrito-baby snuggles and compelling conversations deconstructing Clifford the big red dog—one does a lot of wiping (noses, counters, backsides …), so in order not to lose my fucking mind to make sense of my world, I turned to the page.
Interestingly (perhaps only to me), during these years, I could no longer stomach reading fiction either. A lifelong lover of literary novels, I found I couldn’t bear to leave my reality for made-up worlds. I wanted truths. Not parenting-manual truths—those irked me. I yearned for the wise words of (m)others. I wanted to read some version of my story from another's telling. These musings were my mirrors. Echoes in reverse, if you will. And at the time, they were essential.
Years passed. My children got older. We all got older. I’d accumulated enough narrative pieces to query those aforementioned agents (and receive those aforementioned rejections).
And then a miracle happened.
Now if this was fiction, I’d set my miracle in Central Park. Or perhaps the scene could unfold in Lincoln Center as the main character arrives ten minutes into the first act. But this is not a novel (or a screenplay) and my miracle came via email. An agent who had already passed on my collection of essays wanted to know if I’d considered her suggestion and given a try at fiction. It occurred to me that if an agent suggests I attempt fiction—I should probably attempt fiction. I started my novel that day.
This time I went to the experts. Not only did I resume reading in the genre, I devoured books on plot and structure (and many more on the writing life). I learned that those nuanced characters swimming around in my unconscious needed to want something and it was my job to provide the obstacles until she either succeeded, or failed. This seemed manageable. This I could do.
So as I set out, here is what I knew: I wanted to write about an artist who wasn’t making art. I knew it should take place in New York City. I was determined to portray a long-term committed marriage that had a problem other than fidelity. Also, I wanted to illustrate the intricacies in women’s relationships with friends, mothers, nannies, mentors, bosses, colleagues, and daughters.
I also knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want this to be a story about a woman whose husband and kids were the main hindrance to her owning her artist self. I didn’t want the solution to be that she just needed to set boundaries or find a metaphorical room (and money) of her own.
I looked to my own experience. Something profound had happened when that agent contacted me. My sudden confidence could better be understood in the context of my life—and not just my current-day married-mothering life. I figured the same context should be true for my main character. If I wanted my novel to be rich with meaning, her story needed to unfold over pivotal time periods in her life. I believe an artist neither suppresses nor unleashes her creativity in a vacuum. And this context—these influences and obstacles—I continue to find compelling.
Fast forward three years. Henny on the Couch comes out this April. (Interestingly, I ended up signing with a different agent.)
Which brings me to now. Today—the day my workshop piece is due. I guess the truth is this: I don’t have a narrative piece that I’d like to spend your time (the group’s time) or my time working on because I don’t want to write one. I already have an agent and a publisher who want to read what comes next. Which leads to this … what comes next?
I have a novel percolating. I am also in the thick of turning Henny on the Couch into a screenplay. I’m aware unknown novelists are discouraged from doing this—but having written and sold my novel, I no longer diminish my goals before attempting them.
I’m not sure how to use the workshop time but with four kids (now ages 9-15), a husband, a Bar Mitzvah less than a month away, marketing demands for Henny … time is a precious and scarce commodity. I need to refuel my writer’s self. I hope to spend some of the weekend digging into my screenplay. I would also like to give some much needed attention to the currently faint characters I hope will people my next novel.
There’s also this: I’m a for-real fan of your work—both memoir and fiction. I wept during Labor Day and At Home in the World resonated long after I read the last page. I imagine spending the weekend in your orbit and surrounded by other writers—will be plenty. Who knows? It might even be one of those life altering, memoir inspiring true-to-life experiences.
And if not, it doesn’t matter. There’s always fiction.