It seems, then, that motherhood is uniquely universal/universally unique. Dependant on mother-infant interaction, and the parallel-perpendicular-oblique personalities of both subjects, with additional inputs besides. And while at this stage – infant internal – the only aspect of experience is vicarious, it is useful to be informed. Simultaneously outformed. Psychologically embracing the squirming distention of a formerly singular body. Now dual, soon to be several and returned to its informal former state. Separately connected on the shifting foundations of self. Perpetual destruction and re-creation of the no-longer-sacred and never-profane. Despite all this, unknowable.
About a month ago, as the oblique result of a challenge from one of the women in my writing group, I began writing a story based on a big memory. I had intended it to be a short story (under 5000 words), but the deeper I got into the whole thing, the more I realized the plot needed more space than a short story allows. Which means it’s going to fall in the fairly unpublishable realm of the novelette (5000 to 18,000 words), though possibly blossoming into a novella (18,000 to 40,000 words) if I can find some compelling connective tissue. Either way, longer than anything I have written to date, which I’m pleased about.
The process has been illuminating. At the deepest level, it’s forced me to face some demons and make decisions about attitudes I’ve had towards the events I’m writing about. One of the characters is the essence of who I was at 18, so I’ve had to explore my actions in detail and learn to own my part in the events. The other main character is a man I only knew through his interactions with me, so I’ve had to infer his motivations from what I believe to be true of him. I dug out my journals from that time and uncovered a couple of scraps of writing from him, which gives me corroborating evidence for my memories, and has made me confront a few of the goblins in my shoebox.
The other aspect of this is learning to divorce the characters and narrative from my memory of the events. The people who inspired these characters no longer exist as such. Furthermore, the reality does not in itself make a good story; it’s jagged and disjointed and plain boring in spots. Fortunately, in the vein of all storytellers, I never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I can tell a story that is true without getting bogged down in facts. As a bonus, allowing the story to have its way pleasantly obscures the more recognizable facets of the situation.
I confess committing this story to pixels has consumed most of my energy. I have cut sleep short to write and worked on whatever fragments I could during breaks at work. I’m not complainingI just never thought I would find this kind of dedication. But having done it once, I’m certain I can do it again.
Because this work is almost constantly on my mind, I have been discussing it with my husband. For one, he is a ready source for verifying the internal world of men, though I seem to be more in touch with that than I thought. For two, while I wouldn’t call it exactly collaborative effort, he definitely gets the credit for some interesting threads of the plot and textures in the language. I feel like I should have started including him in my process years ago, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve considered long form narrative within my abilities, and the approach is different for poetry.
Perhaps the most important result of this experiment is my willingness to integrate writing into my life. Finally and fully. You’d think after all these years I would have accepted that I’m a writer. But I still felt I had some illegitimate claims to the title and maybe shouldn’t be too cocky about calling myself a writer. Not anymore. Because I have this big thing, I will see it to completion, and I will do it well.
Before I can say anything else, you need to understand that I am an editor as well as a writer. According to several of my co-workers, I am a relentless editor. Which is, in fact, all a matter of perspective. I know how to take uneven writing and smooth it out. I know how to take good writing and make it better. I also know when someone is testing me, and if they can do it well, I’ll let it slide. But what makes people think me relentless, and perhaps rightly so, is my outspoken devotion to the text rather than the author.
This is interesting in the context of my writing circle. I’ve been part of critical writing groups before: a university-level creative poetry class and a short-lived, but intense writing collective. Both a long time ago. Before I was serious about being an editor, but in both those settings, I had permission to be critical. Every one of us was there to be tempered into something better. We had all asked for it, and so we were none too shy about taking our turn holding someone else’s work in the fire or beating it against the anvil.
What I am in now is different. The women of this experience have not asked for criticism, though that may come. For now, they seem to be just learning to make space for writing in their spare time, so every piece of writing produced is inherently valuable as having been produced. I do my best to listen and accept their work on this level.
But not without small internal struggles. Their work is understandably very raw, which the editor in me doesn’t have a lot of patience for. I chronically self-edit my work. Sure, I may freestyle for a while, but once the flow stops, I go back and review. Change a word, delete a clause, rephrase a sentence. Find myself where the words ended and start moving again. I’ve been doing this for years. So it takes a while for me to comprehend how someone would not edit as they write something to be shared with others. Seriously, how do you not edit??
The fact is I have the most writing experience and training of the three of us. I don’t remember a time when I was not encouraged to write. I identify as a Writer, and I have built time for writing into my daily habits. But that doesn’t mean I win. More rightly, it means that I have an obligation to look for the best and encourage as I have been encouraged. Whether I like the writing or not is inconsequential. At this moment, it means I must ask the right questions to allow the story to be told and serve the author rather than the sequence of the words.
Of course, I’m not quite so arrogant to think that I’m not getting anything out of the experience. This opportunity arrived at just the right time, and as I have engaged with these others, my own stories are starting to shift into focus. I have been reminded that the act of writing, while solitary, does not always function best in isolation. More than that, if I can gag the editor for the sake of others, perhaps I can silence her for myself on occasion.
I turned 33 yesterday. Not a particularly noteworthy age, but the universe converged to allow me to have dinner with two old friends that I haven’t seen in a while. So it was a good, quiet way to celebrate.
One of these friends included me in a tradition that his circle of friends keeps: on your birthday, you must identify the best thing about the last year and the worst thing about the last year. There is nothing novel or revolutionary about this exercise, but it was something I’d never done before. And in answering the question, my attitude turned a little sideways in a much needed way.
The worst part of the last year was the uncertainty leading up to our move out to Vancouver. We had decided we wanted to move; we picked Vancouver because I was likely to be able to keep my job. Except that I couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone about when I could go or what I would be doing. Many a dark hour until I got a straight answer, booked the movers, and started packing in earnest.
The best part of the last year was much harder to pin down. In a year filled with new surroundings, new activities, and welcome incidental lifestyle changes, settling on the highest point is tough. So my answer was getting to see They Might Be Giants in a smallish venue. They opened the show with the song I’d had in my head all day, and then played the entirety of Flood, my favourite of their albums. To top it off, they finished up with an encore of my favourite sequence of mini-songs from Apollo 18. But many other experiences crowded into honorable mention, and today, I want to change my answer. But I won’t.
I’ve been restless lately. Feeling a bit directionless and out of touch. But maybe it’s just been a failure to take stock of all the wonderful people I interact with, and of the events and activities that fill my days. More dissatisfaction is ahead of me: I’m not sure I’m built to be content for long. But I’ll take this past year with its highs and lows. See what we can’t find in the next one.