Yeah, Yeah, Maine's Pretty--What About the Writing?
October 5, 2015
Today marks the start of our last week in Maine, and I'm already feeling nostalgic for a trip that hasn't finished. After next week, Maine won't be a dream or a joke or a myth; it'll be a word wrapped tightly around memories of my mom and I building a closeness that we didn't have before--not to this extent, anyway--and building our books at the same time.
And for now, at least, it's the books I want to talk about.
It feels weird and vulnerable, this public accountability I'm choosing, but I've always done better under that kind of pressure. When I want to lose weight, for example, I make bets with my brother--real bets, with money--and you can be damn sure he collects if (when) I lose. This plays to two (not particularly appealing) aspects of my personality: my competitive rise to a challenge, even if it's my own; and my fear of disappointing people. So essentially, I've learned how to manipulate myself into meeting my goals.
When we arrived in Maine, I had around 11,000 words of character development, 20 scenes summarized on digital index cards (via Scrivener, which I LOVE), a fairly random assortment of research, and the first chapter written. My progress felt slow and sometimes (often) disjointed, though I recognized the feeling of knowing these people, my characters; of the story talking to me at night. I haven't been religious about following the 90-Day Novel plan, but I've been using it as a blueprint, and its structure has been reassuring. My intention was to use the first week we were here to finish character development (well--you never finish; rather, you reach a point where characters are alive enough to tell their own stories) and draft a decent outline. My official start date for writing would be September 29.
My mom had around 24,500 words (close to 100 pages) of her novel written when we arrived. This was from seven years ago, and her plan was to read the pages and pick up where she left off. She said to me, "You're so organized. I feel like such an amateur, just flying by the seat of my pants." I said to her, "No way! If you can pick up where you left off, just do it and be glad."
The first day, the weather was warm enough for us to work on the back deck. I listed out all the conflicts in my novel, organizing them by character. Were they enough to sustain the book? Did each character grow and change? Based on the conflicts, I added scenes to my index card list. I moved them around, playing with their order. I spent a couple of hours doing character development for the youngest daughter, whom I hadn't yet explored in depth. I added a few more index card scenes. I did some research on the Mexican Revolution, background for another character. By dinner, I felt I had made progress, but it was mental progress--not a page to be shown for it.
Meanwhile, my mom wrote a whole chapter.
I'll be honest: I was jealous. There was nothing I wanted more than to just be writing already, but from the beginning, I felt strongly that this was a book that needed deep thought and planning on the front end in order not to (a) stall out or (b) require overwhelming amounts of rewriting on the back end. Plus, there was my RTC experience. I knew, from overseeing the writing of dozens of books, that the effort of creating an outline was always worth it. Even if we deviated from the outline or scrapped it altogether, creating it taught us something essential about the book. I had to trust my gut and my experience, even if impatience made me want to skip a few steps.
The next day, my mom got stuck. She wasn't sure where the story was going next. She had to stop and research trucking company certification and the DEA, and the more she learned, the more the story started changing. She began retracing her steps, revising not only what she'd written the previous day but also some of what she'd written years ago.
As of that morning, I had 47 scenes summarized and organized, and I was itching to write one of the ones I'd seen from the very beginning. I spent the afternoon doing that, and it was one of those times when the act of writing is--wait for it, and I apologize--transcendent. I emerged from what felt like a focused daydream with 3,000 new words of actual book.
That night, over glasses of wine, my mom shook her head. "I can't believe I didn't do any new writing today," she said.
I shrugged. "It's just going to be like that. Some days you'll be firing away while I'm mired in research or planning or just stuck, and some days it'll be the reverse."
There's no right way, I'm trying to say. Every writer has a process, and every book has a process, and sometimes they match and sometimes it's a constant negotiation. At least, that's my suspicion.
As of today, my mom and I have both written about four new chapters. My book is at nearly 10,000 words (37-ish pages). My goal was to leave here with 75 pages, and while there's plenty we want to see and do before we leave, I still think it's achievable.
Before we came here, I fantasized about how it would feel to actually have those 75 pages written. To no longer be "in character development" or "outlining" but to actually be writing the book. I thought I would feel different somehow. Now that I'm here, it reminds me of my first half-marathon, before which I wondered how it would feel to actually be there, in it, running a half-marathon. But running a half-marathon was the same as running any other time; my feet struck the pavement in a familiar pattern, my body tired at a predictable point, and almost before I knew it, it was over. It wasn't the running itself that made it special. It was the surprising, intense feeling of communion with strangers, the gratitude for my body's ability to carry me such a distance, the pride in moving forward despite pain, the joy of sharing the experience with my family, each on our own path and yet all together. Running was a familiar means by which to experience something unfamiliar, something profound, something that's changed with each subsequent race.
Right now, I'm in the first mile. I'm writing the book, and it doesn't feel like I'm doing something special. It feels like work. The best, most satisfying, most joyful work I can imagine, but work just the same--familiar. But I've run this race before. It won't be familiar for long.