This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.
Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.
Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.
But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.
Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.
Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)
And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.
It’s raining colored paper.
No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,
swooping, dipping towards the hard surface
of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields
have turned to paper, and a pumpkin
spills its guts on a front stoop.
A boy discovers it and starts to cry.
Who would do such a thing,
bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?
Something in him falters.
He imagines his house on fire: water boiling
in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.
He thinks about God and Judas
and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,
wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails
to splinters. He stares out at the fields,
counts minutes till schooltime, his breath
a neat circle on the window,
because it’s cold this October, already—
and there in the road is the flock of leaves,
swooping, dipping into the hard surface,
then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.
The cornfields have turned to paper,
and behind them the sky.
© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001