The strange thing about advice is how oddly it sometimes bears fruit. In other words: things never happen the way you think they should. Take my mom’s advice for example.
I set aside the novel (which was really a reframing of an old story idea, sort of a story within a story). There may or may not have been weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for years of work that would never see the light of day. The framing story had started in 2016…but the original story had begun in 2011.
I bought several eco-friendly notebooks. I bought pens. I started writing the new idea. I decided to start in a place I’d never started before: the beginning. I don’t mean page one, mind; I mean an outline. I wrote the outline…yes, I have an outline. (It’s complete, it’s beautiful and it’s laminated. Do you want to see it? It’s real!) Then, I started at page one. Starting things has always been easy for me…it’s finishing them I suck at. I wrote page one. Then I stared at page one. Then I took page one to Mom to see if she could spot the trouble. It took several minutes of de-tangling before we solved the problem of page one…and that wasn’t because of the simplicity of my mistake. No, it certainly wasn’t that.
I’d written in first person, mostly because I’d never written fiction in first person and I thought it’d be a nice break. The character was quite firm that this story wasn’t to be told in first person present tense. I agreed because my CNA Edge writing had all been first person present tense and past tense would be a nice distinction. But page one was about a woman who was reflecting back on her life. Double-past tense. Double reflection. In trying to figure out how to do that, I’d managed to insert every single verb form into the same paragraph…and a few more verb forms yet to be invented.
When we de-tangled all the verb forms, Mom and I had a good long laugh. It was either that, or burst into more weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I was rusty. I was really rusty. Out of practice, out of habit. I crumpled up the page and threw it away. (I wish now that I’d kept it and laminated it as well.)
The wall was still there. Oh, there were several large cracks in the wall, but it was still there, still looming between myself and my stories.
The next week was a Peter week. (At the nursing home, I have a two-week rotating schedule: week one I work four 12 hour shifts, week two I work two 12 hour shifts. In addition, I work two days a week at the coffee shop. So one week I’ll just have one day off both jobs, the next I’ll have two days off both jobs. I call it my “robbing Peter to pay Paul” schedule.) Work left me little time to solve the problem of my own writing rustiness…although I had plenty of time to mull things over. I kept running into the same two thoughts.
One was how a visual artist would perceive the world, as opposed to a written word-artist. A couple months back, my best friend had suggested for our monthly adventure that we go painting and the experience stuck with me. The protagonist of the original story in the novel was an artist, but it wasn’t until that painting class that I realized how little I’d understood of how she perceived the world. Since that painting class, I’d begun to see where I’d gone wrong in that story. The second thought was the problem of the double past tense. I knew how other writers had done it…but how could I do it?
The two problems merged and morphed while, of all things, I had a resident up in the hoyer lift. I consider it a great testament to my professionalism and caregiver abilities that I finished taking care of her before I ripped my little notebook out of my pocket. Five minutes later I had the rough draft of two chapters. I also had the intense curiosity of a mystified old woman.
It was the original story, the first novel I’d set out to write. I hadn’t heard that character’s voice in five years. She’d changed, just as I had changed, but in the whole we both approved of the other. Character and writer were both well-content to interact with each other once again. The wall had collapsed, and now I could see each crack was a story waiting for me to learn how to tell it. Behind the wall was not one story, but five. The original novel, the frame set all by itself, the new story idea and its sequel, and the story of the wall itself.
I’ve writing steadily since then. The pace isn’t quick, but it’s balanced: not so fast I burn myself out, not so slowly the story burns out.