I haven’t been able to talk about my summer

I had a summer of life and death. It sounds melodramatic, but that’s how it was.

For the first two weeks of August, I said good-bye to my father-in-law. Amid numerous complications of numerous illnesses, he chose to discontinue treatment and meet death on his own terms. The family spent those two weeks (and longer) drifting back and forth from the hospital. I experienced a mixture of the reluctance to let go and impatience to move on that I understand is common in these situations; the days pass slowly and there is never enough time. And in the end, I am grieved as I cherish the memory of that very special man. I loved him for all the quirks of his personality, and for helping to make my husband the man he is.

Through all that, I was in the first trimester of my first pregnancy. Trying to find food in the hospital cafeteria that didn’t trigger intense nausea, and anxious under the influence of the first hormonal waves. But excited — sometimes guiltily, sometimes purely. The timing felt wrong and right at the same time. Everything changes so monumentally the moment you find out you’re pregnant. Yet for so long, it looks like nothing is really happening. The whole situation was exhausting, but I was able to find the reserves of strength that allow you to move as necessary through each day.

This all adds up to the feeling that I missed the summer of 2012. Besides the four or five weeks of overturned routine that surrounded the death, I’ve had to forego the patio ciders, gin & tonics, and wine that punctuate lazy summer days. There were few hikes, few long bike rides, few camping trips, few evenings on the beach. No fireworks. And now fall is settling in with its slanting sun and crunching leaves. I’ve always looked forward to fall. But it seems that turning inwards is less satisfying when you’ve had none of the hectic inside-out of summer.

At the same time, regret is pointless. The situation can’t be different, so I won’t waste (too much) time on wishes. A summer of life and death leads to profound moments for the soul. You can’t buy that with 100 perfect summer days.

Writing non-stop – just not here

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 complaining—I 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.

Being with Other Writers

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.

Playing with perspective

I’ve joined up with a couple of women from work to form a small writing circle. We seem to have similar goals, so we got together to find some encouragement and accountability in each other, and to expand as writers, which includes giving ourselves assignments for the week.

This week we are experimenting with perspectives. One of my weaknesses as a writer has always been the inability to speak from within views I have never held. Ten-plus years of blogging hasn’t done much to encourage me to do otherwise. My typical style of writing doesn’t involve any sustained alternate perspective, and this will be a problem for a project I’m starting to commit to.

But I hit a snag: I’ve rarely been one to follow an assignment to the letter. Which is why I’m 2700 words down a side track and haven’t even started any of the short pieces I agreed to write. Instead, I’m exploring the opposite perspective of a strong old memory, which has me wandering in the mind of a youngish man (mid-20s) struggling with emotions and actions he feels are both inappropriate and justified. The memory is filled with conflict, and I’m not looking so shiny through his eyes. So it’s a bit tough.

That said, this exercise is important for three reasons. One, it gives me practice writing a character I know to have strength and weakness. I’m far too inclined to keep characters one-dimensional, or not really characters at all, so in this, I am forced to acknowledge and play with the roundness of a fictionalized person. Two, it forces me to omit information I know to be true from my perspective, but which he could not have guessed at or would have conveniently ignored. Third, it’s a chance to play with an unreliable narrator. My leading man is not omniscient, though I wasn’t much for keeping secrets from him, and he is far from unbiased. So despite the conflict, I’m enjoying myself and exorcising a few demons along the way.

You won’t get to read this story, even if I can manage to tell it with some skill. The events are too personal, too identifiable to anyone who knew me then, and I’m not interested in dredging the past out of its murky depths. The point is not to share the product. The point is to use what I have created (and will create in subsequent drafts) as training for the stories I don’t yet know need to be told. Which feels very much like moving forward.