When I was young, before all the abstract reasoning had completely kicked in, I used to write stories. Because I am a collector and cataloger and archivist at heart I still have all these stories in journals and notebooks. At various points in my life I have taken them out and leafed through the pages alternately being fascinated and judgmental about my young mind. Depending on the state of my adult mind at the read through, I see my young self as hopelessly naive or precociously prescient or [probably the very worst] average.
During the entrance into adolescence, which for me was later than my peers, I wrote like if I stopped someone was going to shoot a puppy. Notebooks and notebooks full. First college ruled notebooks and then quad ruled notebooks and then loose-leaf quad-rule pages with right-handed writing on one side and left-handed writing on the other so that my wrist would not bump up against the rings in the binder, so that I wouldn’t waste a single free space on the page [no margins on quad rule]. Binders and binders and binders.
Before I was 16 I had written over 500 pages of one main novel and 20-50 pages of several other novels totaling about 6 novels all together. Some of them are not bad, which from me is really high praise especially considering that I am talking about myself. Even in my most cynical and least charitable moods about my own aptitude I cannot help but remember the fury with which I wrote things as girl. The dedication that I had [when there was nothing else in my life that required any dedication]. The pure unadulterated drive to get the words in my head onto the page.
During this same time I also wrote in journals on an almost daily basis. I had observed this sort of vigil from my dad, who every morning rose far too early, sang the oldies in the shower, drank a glass of Sunny D, brushed his false teeth, and then sat down at the kitchen table to read his AA books [one day at a time] and write in his journal. He has over thirty-five years of those things now. I used to spy him over my Rice Crispies or Honey Smacks and wonder what he wrote in there. It was mysterious. Sometimes I would see the top of a page, a heading in his crisp, draftsman’s copperplate “Alberta’s birthday” [that is his sister] or “Easter Sunday.”
I think now that these journals were mostly about events, but I always imagined that he must be writing about his feelings. Dad has feelings [!] and they are in those books [!]. But only a horrible person would ever read them and so though I had many opportunities to do so, I never read them. But I did start to write my own.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I didn’t have many friends. So I wrote about friendships. I was afraid that I was not very interesting or smart. So I wrote about interesting and smart people. I had never been anywhere amazing. So I wrote about unbelievable places. Places that didn’t exist yet, places I had always wanted to go, places that were hidden and invisible in the places I went every day.
In college I continued to write and the thing about college is that there is no one to tell you to go to bed or that you should be doing anything else other than what you want to do. I mean, I went to class and studied and went to my job and hung out with other awkward weirdos awkwardly, but the rest of the time [and there is so much time where you are doing nothing in college] I wrote.
People who met me in those years later told me how intimidated they were by the fury of my writing. How when I would whip out my tiny notebook to write something [in the middle of a conversation like an asshole] they wondered if they were being memorialized in there or if I had just not been listening to them, alone in my own thoughts. The volume of the writing in and of itself suggested greatness.
Very rarely did I read to anyone or let them read what I had written. It wasn’t until I was almost twenty that I opened up the pages of books and stories I had written to see what other people might think of them. I was afraid they were not very good, which could be the case, but also doesn’t matter because “good” was not why I wrote, it was just why I didn’t let people read.
Throughout this time I never thought of myself as a writer, not really, because I had never finished a story. Writers in my mind were not just people who wrote a lot [though I was definitely that] they were people who created completed works for others to read.
When I switched to digital media, I had a folder on my computer called With Ends. For awhile this folder was aspirational. Because the archivist tendencies persist in the digital environment, I have preserved this file structure. In fact, other than a small data failure in the spring of 2003 [which resulted in the loss of a few paragraphs and some free writing] I still have everything I have ever written in all its forms [including the marginalia]. The folder structure from my original IBM thinkpad is also preserved now in my Google Drive. I still have a folder called With Ends.
There are 15 documents in it. I have 10.7 of 15 free GB used [mostly text documents] and I have “finished” 15 works of fiction, which is to say they have a full arch of plot that mimics the traditional structure of a novel. I do not consider these 15 works to actually be completed, they just end like fiction should.
I’m not good at endings.
I have written thousands of essays mostly for myself but a few for open mic type things [people at the open mic just LOVE essays, amirite?]. I have written over 20 sermons for my church, which is its own open mic in a way. And those things have ends, but they are not works of fiction, which were the first things that I ever wrote.
When I look over these stories now what strikes me most about them is how descriptive I can be of a physical place that exists in my mind. How precise I can be with some very specific scenes that enliven the essence of what I am trying to say. And how bad I am at plot. My characters very often do not progress from where they are to a place I feel they are done, which is not to say they do not grow, rather I do not know when to stop growing them.
I think that my problem with plot is that it is imaginary. Real life has no plot and I live in real life. I have spent A LOT of time narrativizing my real life trying to make it make sense [this does not work, do not recommend] but I was unable to fool my life in fiction. I write stories that are like real life, which is to say without narrative arc, redemption or denouement. I will probably keep writing like this until I am dead and even in death my life [and my fiction] will not have a tidy resolution that anyone can point to and say, “ah, that is what this whole thing was about.”
While writing my first novel in 8th grade – a sweeping, historical epic about an odd girl, oldest in a large family as the American frontier grew up around her all the while concealing her parents’ dark secret – I had a companion notebook with tips for writing [this novel went through 8 drafts but it never had an ending]. In my companion notebook I wrote, “the lives of the characters exist before and after the story you are trying to tell. The job of the author is to choose which parts are worth telling and for what reason,” which was a paraphrasing of something I had read from an early internet search about how to write a novel.
I could not commit to creating the window through which my reader needed to look in order to see the larger meaning of my story. I just wanted to follow these characters through their lives and maybe, like, learn something about how to be alive in the telling.
At this time in my life, I never doubted my ability to do the work that was writing. But I did doubt that I could edit down the grandiosity of the worlds I created to something worth telling for a reason. I just wrote to write, but understood that what made people read was the hook, the whodunit, the “what’s going to happen next,” and I didn’t care about that really. I just wanted to play in the imaginary space, to suck out the nuggets of wisdom that appeared there, to imagine what things there were to learn from the ideas ricocheting through my mind recycling the concepts that I was experiencing in real life that I was unable to make sense of. I didn’t want my characters to do something and then stop. I didn’t want them to be over but I also had no idea what they were doing when I wasn’t looking at them.
In college I learned that Luis Borges had written many book reviews for books he imagined having been written [I have never read any of these]. This idea was at once brilliant and terrible and I was instantly wary of Borges as someone very much smarter than me and therefore untrustworthy to have thought up the idea of just skipping to the completion of a novel and reviewing it without having to go through all the work to write it. I was very jealous that I would never finish a novel and be famous enough to get away with that shit. Now I understand that you don’t have to be famous to write things like that, just for people to read them, and I could probably write my own or at least read his if I were so inclined.
Still, in terms of fiction, I lack something integral about plot building that results in completing a novel satisfactorily. I am not really a fiction reader. Most novels I read are either a) too obvious to be entertaining, b) trying to hard to be something experimental, c) entirely too absorbing because of some intangible thing about a character that hits me just right despite my objective assessment of the writing as terrible or the plot as meandering, d) full of outmoded tropes and lazy characterizations that make me fear for our continued humanity since authors and publishers clearly think this is highest form of writing we the read can digest. I will read those books labeled as ‘c’ over and over again and ignore the others in favor of non-fiction. But I sense that this is not how other people read fiction.
Maybe I have not read enough to write enough? In On Writing Stephen King talks about the need to read fiction to write fiction and I think that as a writer he does a great job of writing something that you think is pulp but has a window into a deeper truth. But also, he is a man in need of an editor. I understand what makes a “good” novel, and I understand the work that goes into one, but I don’t seem to be able to contort my writing into that shape.
In the last few years, as I have flirted with picking writing up again [I allowed motherhood to really annihilate my writing process]. I have only indulged [this is the “proper” verb for someone who is a mother] in memoir and essays. They seem more compact, more in keeping with the time that I am able to allot to them, as if I know that I do not have the stamina for the mania that is writing to live that I once possessed.
But I also think that maybe I am not done yet.
The only novel I have ever finished was one that I wrote for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writer’s Month] in 2015. In this novel I was desperately trying to solve the problem of my unhappy marriage. A good friend of mine, who was trying to help me get to a place of peace with my unmanageable life, suggested that I imagine what a good life was and write it. And I did.
It ended with a “happily ever after” and I still wonder what happened to those characters in the rest of their life, but know that writing it would make for a very boring unending slog through the process of doing laundry and fighting about drapes that people prefer not to read because everyone knows that you end the story before that part or you end up with the Outlander series [full disclosure: I have read all of these books many times because they are category c novels. See above].
It was a “real” novel even if it needs a rewrite and some more attention to certain transitions. But to do it I had to give in to the mania and I had to stop before I thought it was over. And my life at that time made it clear to me in thousand ways that I had not built a writer’s life for myself, that I was not entirely sure that I wanted to live a writer’s life at the present time.
Writing for readers is about imagining what readers want to read and then writing it. Writing to write is not like that, it doesn’t care about readers. I know that the fiction that I write is not enjoyable for readers. I will not say that this blog is an attempt for me to learn to write fiction that people want to read [because it isn’t]. But it is about trying to talk through something that I haven’t thought all the way to the end because I don’t really understand endings as literary devices, just as actual events.
I think people secretly feel a little overtaken by the tyranny of a narrative arc, or they would not obsessively read/watch series long after they have jumped the shark. Life isn’t really like novels because it doesn’t mean anything at the time. It only has meaning in retrospect. The act of writing a retrospective about your life while you are still alive seems like a phantom. It requires a premature ending stand in for the final ending which can only create a false sense of meaning and completeness.
But also: I am not dead. I may live to write fiction again.