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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right?

Of course. And of course not. The questions came up as the details in the characters’ lives moved further from what you know: military stuff, computer networking, a contracting business, retail management. You’ve been on the periphery of all of these realms at some point in your life. It’s interesting that your book has goes where you have not. It’s been a nauseous-making challenge (and you have SO made things up at times). The thing that’s kept you going is that you understand the characters, and sometimes you can feel what they feel. That’s what’s been guiding you through strange territory.

But after all the second guessing, it’s still Blaine’s story. Henry’s experiences in Iraq are important, but they come home with him and affect his family unit. The rest are important, too, to some degree. The connections and disconnections are all important. In the world of the story, the other characters could get along if Blaine weren’t there, but the novel can’t.

If your felt sense of the story is right, it will all fit together. Yes, there are missing pieces and underdeveloped characters and relationships. The writing will continue so you can find all of that. You’ve really wanted nothing more than to end up with too much text, a really long draft to play with. As long as you can figure out the design, everything will be okay. The readings on craft have helped you. Trust your process. Keep going.

Love,
Me

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