Monday, June 15, 2009
Hello, Kepler’s Writing Group! I am delighted to be here this week, among so many authors I admire—and who appear to me more mindful and disciplined than I am. They have posted here about their creative methods and management and the books that have most inspired or motivated them. They have studied and persisted all along and have succeeded where they are most devoted.
I, on the other hand, am a seat-of-the-pants writer, so unsystematic that it all seems accidental to me. Yes, I meant to write, I decided in fifth grade that I wanted to be a writer. I just never settled down to it. Though I made a living writing for hire or editing other people’s prose, the day jobs left me feeling I’d used up exactly the energy I needed for my own work. How could I write all day and then go home and write at night and on the weekends? Other people did it—why couldn’t I?
What I see now, as a sixty-something first-time novelist, is that I was busy making all the mistakes I might have had characters make. I made bad choices in everything from work to love to time management. I didn’t plan, I pinballed. I was on the move, all the time, but without a map or destination. Twice I married by accident, by which I mean that I drifted into relationships that simply presented themselves attractively, and I did it without asking myself the right questions about either party’s needs or intentions. I even became a mother in sort of an accidental way. I had always wanted a child, genuinely and deeply—the way I really did want to write—but fate seemed determined to deny me. Reproductive problems led to medical crises and an agonizing choice, but without them I would never have had a healthy son at age forty. That was almost twenty-four years ago, and nothing in my life has ever made me happier. (The whole story appears in the anthology Choice, edited by Karen Bender and Nina de Gramont. This collection, by the way, covers every kind of real-life reproductive decision, with all its anguish and struggle. It is the perfect book for these fraught days after Dr. George Tiller’s murder).
Just as I was an older, first-time mother then, an “elderly primipara,” I am an older writer now, an “elderly primipublished.” As with pregnancy and childbirth, I failed several times before I succeeded. I wrote a mystery, then I wrote nearly a whole novel about an ugly woman who one day woke up beautiful, and then I quit for a long time, made more mistakes, and began searching more diligently for new directions.
And guess what I finally wrote about, when I found enough peace, time, and confidence to complete a novel I believed in? I wrote about Sarah Lucas, an elderly woman nearing the end of a well-planned life, surrounded by family and a diverse array of friends. Sarah, the main character in Every Last Cuckoo, has spent nearly all of her seventy-five years in one place, the rocky, gorgeous state of Vermont, from which she has derived her great heart and strength. Planning Sarah’s life as I never did plan my own has shown me how I want my old age to be. It is gratifying to see that my best role model is a product of my own imagination. Readers, too, tell me that they want to be like Sarah as they grow old.
Nevertheless, it surprises me that Every Last Cuckoo has done so well. In the writing, it just seemed to unfold, as if I were winging it, like a marriage or a freelance assignment. And yet, though it felt like a seat-of-the-pants effort, I seem to have had intention and craft all along. That’s what showed up sharply in the revising and editing. It’s what continues to show up, and further surprise me, when I talk with interviewers or hear from readers. Other people’s reactions show me aspects of the novel’s shape and pattern that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it.
This is a grand revelation! It relieves anxiety; it tells me I can trust the processes of my own mind even when I am not conscious of them.
It also suggests that I’ve had intention about my life all along, too. I have, after all, gotten everything I wanted most, a child, a published novel, and even a third chance at a good marriage. This time, marriage works because I’ve learned to be deliberate, every day, about acts and consequences. I’m a little old to be figuring this out, but even though I’m late, I’m not never. I think I’ve simply reached the revising and editing stages, the time when patterns and subtexts reveal themselves, if ever they are going to.