I'm trying to figure out how to deal with not writing fiction for a while.
Recently, it occurred to me that I've been using fiction to escape living. (I don’t know why I didn’t notice this years ago.) Maybe I'm noticing it now because for the past two weeks I've found myself obsessing about a measly 8 pages of text. Obsessing is not a good feeling. It's like you're a gnat caught in water swirling down the drain--very hard to reverse course.
I should mention that the pages in question comprise the beginning of a 350 page novel I completed last May. They were not virginal text. No. They'd been rewritten before, many times, in the first person, the second person, and more than once, in the third person. For a while this section had reposed in the middle of the plot, where I still think it made more sense.
Now it was to be the beginning of a revision of this novel. More than a revision, actually. A complete re-write, with an up to the minute 2008 story line featuring terrorist acts and the US presidential election. Why on earth?
Rejection, that’s why. The agent who read it passed it on to her 20-something intern. The intern clearly missed the point. She failed to appreciate the mature nuance of the complicated ending, and even got the factual aspects wrong. I’m being judged by a 20-something intern and I failed the test. It pissed me off.
Once I calmed down, however, I saw that she was right about the ending, of course. The complications were too complex. To get the emotional point, one has to be able to follow the plot. Her boss was also correct in her explanation that “quiet” novels—that is, reflective novels focused on character rather than plot—are difficult to sell in the current market. She already represents a number of established authors whose novels in this vein are being turned down. Why take a flyer on someone new? That this conclusion depressed me is an understatement, of course.
The lesson I drew from it, however, was that I had to try harder. I had to grab the reader in the first 50 pages.
So I decided to begin again and invigorate the plot. I’ve begun again before, I’m ashamed to admit how many times. For more than twenty years I’ve written drafts of novels and, finding them unsuccessful for one reason or another, set them aside and started over. I called it persistence.
This time, though, it went much more slowly. I began to obsess. That’s when I understood that I don’t have the energy to write this story again, even with a different, "noisier", plot. I’m tired of these characters. Bone tired. They have run out of quirks with which to surprise me.
So, although I have other ideas for novels, I think—for now—I might just write about where I’m living. I have the good fortune to be in the country, at present. I sit here in the corner of a room formed by two windows at right angles. My computer occupies an old desk from a country school—the kind with initials carved in the wood and a hole in the top where the inkwell was intended to go. I look out onto a rose garden, and beyond it into woods.
It’s bucolic, and yet it is not a dream of arcadia. There are worms and carcasses. The beautiful live oak that shades part of the yard is in extreme stress, losing many of its leaves. After a drought of several years duration, the tree may not make it. We have contributed to the problem, too, in the way that human beings, attempting to solve one set of problems, often create completely new ones. Our responsibility for these mistakes requires contemplation. Stewardship of the land is not all that different from raising a family. You do the best you can and hope.
My husband and I, the ones who commit the acts and must reap the contemplation, are not young. Every day presents its own challenges, connected to the effect of age upon the body’s mechanics. Who will build fence? Who will spread compost? Who will clean the gutters? These chores must be managed.
But there, off to my right, is a post oak whose leaves appear to be gilding by the moment despite the day’s temperature of 77 degrees. Elm saplings in the woods have already engaged the transition and begun to drop. Here in the middle of November in central Texas, it is autumn. Change is constant. We will witness it.