I’ve been thinking a lot about writing for the past twenty plus years (I started in 1991). I’ve been thinking about it a lot more since I started teaching the publishing class at McDaniel three weeks ago (there’s the blind leading the blind). One of the things I forced my hapless students to do was examine what they wanted from a writing career and beyond that, lurking in the subtext, why they wrote. It’s a big question for me because I was not born to write novels. I think I was born to sit on a bed with one or more rescued dachshunds and read novels; at least that’s what comes naturally to me. And yet there are these stories in my head. The problem is, I’m having a helluva time writing them.
My closest friend is a natural storyteller. She got her first publication at eight–just ask her, she’ll tell you–and never stopped. She’s been going through hell the last ten years or so but she never stopped writing. She can’t stop writing. She writes the way I eat pizza, because it’s there. If they stopped paying her tomorrow, she’d still write. It’s in her blood, it’s part of who she is. I admire that, I envy that, I don’t have that.
I think I became a writer because I read so much. I loved what Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart and Margery Allingham and Michael Gilbert and Rex Stout and Emma Lathen and all the rest did for me. No matter how awful things were as I was growing up, there were books and they had worlds in them. My favorite book of all time is a YA called Green As Spring that I read so many times that its language is part of my writer DNA. It was a romance novel about Frannie Gay, a high school student in the fifties (forties?), a much more innocent time, who one day realizes that she’s in love with her best friend. I loved that realization scene: she’s in a swimming pool with all of her friends (great community in that book), treading water, her nose just above the surface, when she realizes what’s happening and almost drowns from the shock. I loved the pairing of the thought and action, the shock of the thought and the water up her nose, drowning in emotion and chlorine. And there was all this wonderful dialogue because everybody got the best lines. I loved that world, those people, I wanted to be Frannie Gay who after many trials and tribulations gets the boy at the Big Dance, telling him that she’ll be dating a college guy, too, and then smiling as he bends to kiss her. At some point in one of many re-reads, I realized that I didn’t just want to read Green as Spring, I wanted to write it.
And with that realization, I got water up my nose. Because much like Frannie knows it’s impossible that she’ll ever have Michael, I knew it was impossible that I could become a published writer. I wasn’t smart enough, I didn’t have enough worldly experience, I was all hat and no cattle (all talk and no plot?), it was never going to happen. If you’ve ever read Sizzle, my first book (although not the first one published), you’ll know how right I was. Or at least how clueless. I think what saved me was the need to win. I don’t need to defeat other people; what other people are doing has nothing to do with me. But I sure as hell need not to fail. Add a good dose of hypomania into that, and I became an absolute fanatic about learning to write fiction. I read books, I took classes, I made people who were good readers read my stuff and tell me brutally what wasn’t working, I slaved at my craft. That part was all right, that made sense, that was controllable. But that was only half of it. The other half was the voices in my head.
It always sounds so cute: I have voices in my head. Well, they’re cute because they’re not telling me to save France or blow up Congress, they just chat away. Sometimes they talk dirty to each other. Sometimes they have big fights. They do a LOT of wisecracking. But they start talking and I write them down and then, somewhere along the way, I find a story in the chat, and I start thinking about antagonists and all the craft stuff and about eighteen months later there’s a book. Which I then revise twenty times, but hey, it’s a book. It’s what I call my truck draft; I give it to Jen and tell her that it’s not where I want it to be, but if I get hit by a truck, she can publish it. That worked really well until I hit menopause, and something happened to my brain chemistry, and the voices went away.
I can’t begin to tell you how lonely that was. And terrifying because by that point, the voices in my head were paying my electric bill, but mostly just lonely. An entire inner life full of people in my brain just went away. Every now and then a crumpled ball of paper would blow across the dusty floor up there, but mostly it was just silence. And silence for me meant failure. And I do not fail. Cue small mental breakdown.
It was about that time that I started collaborating. For those of you who’ve wondered: I had to. I couldn’t write on my own. If you’ve read my parts of Don’t Look Down, you can see my problem. I’m there, I’m trying, I’ve got the craft down, but aside from the Wonder Woman scene and a couple of others, the voices never came back. (And a big thank you to Bob Mayer for carrying me on that book.) Writing with Eileen and Krissie in The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes was a little better; Mare was a gift as soon as she showed up in full battle gear, and she’s still one of my top fave heroines. And then came Agnes. Agnes didn’t just talk in my head, she snarled; I had to type faster than I ever had before just to get it all down before the silence came back. Because that was the problem, the silence kept coming back. I’d think, “Now I have it again!” and it would disappear like mist in the sun, just gone.
I stuck with collaborations and loved both of the next ones, but I knew I had to write alone again, just for my own mental health. And then the universe sent me a gift: two little girls who came as a package deal with a friend who moved in with me. Two incredibly smart, incredibly emotional, incredibly vocal little girls who made me look at everything in a different way. And because of them, one day, a book I’d been working on and getting nowhere suddenly came to life because there was Alice in my head, and when Alice started talking, Andie answered, and then North entered the conversation, and Southie and May and Carter and Lydia and Flo and Isolde and Dennis and pretty soon, I was typing fast again because they all had so much to say. And then I finished the book, and the voices went away, and that crumpled paper skittered across the dust in my brain again.
At this point I’m getting boring because I haven’t made my point, so I’ll get to it. Because I wasn’t born to be a writer, because I don’t think in story, because I cannot write fiction unless I can hear the damn voices, I don’t have a lot of control over what I write. I have friends who plan stories, who say, “This is what I’m going to do next and after that I’ll do this,” and then–this is the part that astounds me–they write those stories. They get the idea, they develop it into a story, they send it to their editors. They’re born writers. Meanwhile, I have readers who are annoyed because I haven’t written a sequel to Bet Me. Aside from the fact that there can’t be a sequel to Bet Me because of the last chapter, I would so write a sequel to that book if I could. I would do it in a New York minute. Bet Me Again. Bet You. Bet Me in Space. Bet Me with Zombies. Hell yes, I’d write those. I just can’t hear the voices. (Although Bet Me with Zombies has huge potential . . .)
Worse than that, I get partial voices. I have scenes that are so vivid in my head that I have to write them down. I love these people. I love where these stories could go. I have an entire world built for a fantasy series. But the damn voices don’t stay. So I try to write without the voices and seriously, it’s very bad. So I have You Again, the reboot with some lovely scenes between Zelda and a ghost out on the terrace. I have two short stories started in that fairy tale world I built, love them, love the characters, they’ve stopped talking. I have a great novella about Alice in middle school started; Alice is evidently now sulking in her room. I have another novella I like, great premise, love the angry heroine, she threw her fit and now, as Pink Martini sings, she’s gone.
Those of you thinking that real writers don’t wait for inspiration are right. As I have mentioned before, I’m not a Real Writer. Every book I’ve written has been a mixture of voices because my brain chemistry is a little off and a helluva lot of craft building. You just-put-your-butt-in-the-chair people would not like what happens when I just put my butt in my chair. Proof: I tried to finish You Again after the voices went away, and my editor rejected it even though it was under contract. I found that manuscript a couple of weeks ago and tried to read it, and it was incoherent. When a book is so bad that Jen Enderlin can’t fix it, a writer has a problem.
So this is an interesting stage in my career. (May you live in interesting times.) I have the stories I want to write. I know how to write them thanks to a million years of studying craft. I have contracts for them. They’re marketable as all hell. And yet . . .
I tell myself it’s because my life has been so chaotic and awful for the past three years. I tell myself that now that I’m in a great place emotionally and physically, that the voices will come back, especially once I get this cottage out of derelict stage which should be by August (not finished, just not tripping over lumber and looking at the basement through the hole in my kitchen floor). I want to write You Again, I want to write the Liz books, I want to write the Fairy Tale Lies stories, I want to write the “Cold Hearts” and “Spooky Alice” novellas. Beyond that, I want to write Haunting Alice and Stealing Nadine. I know how to write all of those stories. All I need now is the voices.
So I’m thinking of moving to non-fiction. I don’t need no stinkin’ voices for that. But still, deep down inside, there’s one last little voice that I think belongs to Frannie Gay saying, “I didn’t give up, why the hell are you?” So maybe I’ll try again. The voices used to come at night. I could get candles. Sacrifice a chicken. There must be a way.
Apologizing if you made it this far. It really was all about me, nothing entertaining in there, but it feels good to verbalize it. I’d try to write something entertaining to make up for all this navel-gazing, but it’s finally dark, so I’m going to take my laptop and go sit in the bed with the lights off and wait. I don’t have a chicken, so it’ll just have to be dumb luck. Which come to think of it, is how I got this far. It could work.