This week started out slowly, that is, if I begin my week just after the last blog post. Not the posting of the presentation I gave as part of the Faculty Association professional development panel, but the one called And And And. I didn’t write anything more that day, and the day that followed found me constipated. Two measly pages. Still ideas were coming, and I was jotting them down. I keep a MS Word document for just such a purpose. Mostly it’s a list of cryptic messages only I can decipher, but it’s proven useful, especially when the well is dry. I don’t necessarily use the prompts to get me going, but I know there’s a place where I can store my half-formed ideas, scraps of dialog, characters I’d like to explore, memories, etc. Also, I keep there a list of notes on the writing of fiction, questions that keep arising for me which I hope to solve, eventually.
So the week started off slowly, but has since gained momentum. I’ve written more pages this week than any other so far. The last two sessions yielded 8 plus pages each of good useable material. I don’t exactly know what the change is, but it reminds me of the experience I had when I began to write poetry in earnest. I was in therapy at the time, and I remember telling my therapist, with some surprise, that I’m a poet. It was important for me then to identify as a poet, because to me poetry is a way of looking at the world. It would be the same if you were a philosopher or a religious. Saying, I’m a poet, declares a certain perspective on experience, that is, reality, which is different especially from those who take what is given to them without question. It’s a more difficult route, one Frost questions in “The Road Not Taken,” wondering, I think ruefully but certainly ironically, is this “all” the difference?
For me the newest difference happened a couple of days into last week, when I wrote three separate chapters, each equaling about 3 or 4 pages. Now, I began writing this novel about 20 years ago. I don’t have any pages from that early draft, thank God, but I was in grad school then and thought I was going to be a novelist. A bad experience with a mentor/workshop instructor and other personal matters led me in another direction, and I became a poet, both on paper and in action. I’ve written about that false choice elsewhere, but suffice to say that while I wrote some short stories and a few longer pieces over the years, nothing quite approached a novel, and further, I didn’t work on fiction. I worked on poetry, poems, and writing about poetry. This blog is a testament to that life, the life of a poet.
But somewhere along the way, as I approached 40 (I’m 43 now) and after reading Marc McGurl’s book on fiction in the program era, I began to think about my earliest ambition to be a novelist. That summer, 2013, I wrote about 90 pages. I couldn’t even call it a novel then. Instead, when I labeled the folder on my hard drive, I called it “Fiction Experiment.” Only one other person has read those pages, Shannon, and she is the one who encouraged me to continue working on the book, when she read it in late 2013, early 2014. It is worthwhile, she said, and I knew she meant it because given the choice to read anything else from a rather large library of books–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, etc.–she picked up instead the half-complete, less-than-half complete manuscript which was then untitled. Before this the only notion I got that the endeavor was successful was when I showed just one paragraph to another person I won’t name here, and she, who hadn’t ever shown much interest in my life as a novelist, who indeed flat out didn’t like my earliest attempts, started when she heard those sentences. It was like she hadn’t seen me in forever and now, come upon me in some unfamiliar setting, perhaps bearded, older, she couldn’t believe the change, the difference. She liked it.
My plan when contemplating this post was to examine a paragraph or two from the pages I mention above, but now it occurs to me the difference, if there is one, is likely to be imperceptible and to illustrate my point I’d have to examine many many pages, most of which are bad. Like with so many changes, great and small, this one happened incrementally, and it’s likely I’m the last one to fathom the consequences, not the first. So it dawned on me, even though I’ve already committed myself during this sabbatical to write a draft of a novel and I’ve taken workshops on the novel and read from the pages I’ve already written and the rest, it dawned on me that, yes, I am a novelist. I am a novelist engaged in the writing of a novel, and it doesn’t feel like I am wearing my daddy’s shoes, shirt and tie, wielding his briefcase like I did when I was small, pretending to be an office manager. I am not pretending to be a novelist. I am a novelist. This has nothing to do with the end product. This has nothing whatsoever to do with writing pages or publishing manuscripts. This has to do with a way of seeing the world. The shift, then, hasn’t been away from poetry so much as it’s been an integration of what I am, what I was and what I still might be. Joseph Campbell, when he talks about Jungian therapy, talks about this integration. I used to think it was a flowering, but that metaphor seems not quite to fit anymore. Who can talk about flowering when his hair is thinning, his middle expanding, and his eyes creasing, sprouting feet?
Next week will be a whole new story. This feeling will pass, and then I’ll be left struggling again with the more concrete aspects of the problem. I will be struggling with the actual writing, the putting of one word after another. But I’ve been there before. That is familiar territory. I’ve disciplined myself to do that work.