The novel is about a main character who takes off and away. I knew the inciting incident had to be the best friend arriving on the island to goad her on, but I had no idea that it would be the best friend who would take over the novel, who was so waiting to enter the scene that I had almost not even to write her name before she was already on top of me, clawing over me, into the screen. And as Elsie had at first dug her way out, emerged fully-formed into my world, I was now forced into theirs by the beckoning hand of this willful, menacing character. I’d been afraid she’d be too powerful to write properly, but of course, she took care of that. Was she concerned I couldn’t write her well, so decided to do the job herself?
What it means to me now is that as I plot, I must respect that the characters I’ve grown out of inner-eyelid blackness and neurons at rest will decide the fate of this novel. The eery, beguiling tone wasn’t there before, not until I had someone else with me along for the ride. It’s touching that I’ve created a plot and put some words down on paper when what I’ve ended up with is a world, a dreamscape I can try my best now to relay, somehow, to you.
Every morning I wake up and randomly choose, using an intricate alphabet-patterning system, one article of clothing around which I must create an outfit. If the outfit allows me to wear leggings, I have been successful. If every day I keep running into that green blouse, I must eventually give it away. Randomizing my wardrobe allows me to lose control, and give up a choice, which have been known to be hard for me to make in the morning.
I’ve also started randomizing my circulation around the classroom as a teacher. I try to get to everybody instead of always to the kids who are falling off their chairs, either because they can’t sit still or because their hands are so high in the air and their chests so stretched outwards that their position no longer fits it. I feel this brings a balance to my practice, and along with removing choice, offers moments of great synchronicity: the next three kids I flip through are the last three that asked me questions, and that kid falls off his chair at the exact moment after I pick his name.
I am also trying it in writing. Once I’m knee-deep in the novel, once it’s living and I’m wanting to sink deeper, I open the random number generator. I pull a page number and attack it, from anywhere I can. It could be one word, one theme, one sentence: I use that as a jumping board into the deeper places of the story, as though they’re already there but just need careful mining. This randomized approach does nothing inherently better than a linear–all that matters is that it convinces me of some magic and relieves me of some choice.
The move away from linear thinking helps me connect elements in a different way. I would never have put the green blouse with the red pants, or that kid with this one, unless told to by my bossy system. I also wouldn’t have created a flashback on page 38 to recall what happened on page 14 if not made to see what was happening in each part side by side. Randomizing comes from a place of privilege, a place where what one does next doesn’t matter to anyone but you, and that’s writing, and that’s the clothes I wear, but it’s also not always that. Randomization allows the speed and depth and care with which I need to touch base with each of my students several times a day. What should be different in a novel? I need to keep all the parts in my head, the balls in the air, the storylines jumping and crossing so that by the end of this I’ll have something that’s a novel, a cohesive, breathing thing, and not a bunch of words I’ve piled up in a line. Randomization is silly, but it’s the heart of what I’m doing, and what we’re all doing when we’re creating, being creative, or creating relationships.
45 minutes is all it takes me to be a writer. 45 minutes a day in my study lets me live those other parts of the day with a calming secret, a persona I can revert to when the job and the stress become too much. I am that, I can say, pointing to the study. That I go to it every day makes it live on in me. Do I live on in it?
All day, does my ghost sit typing at the keyboard, the cat reaching for my fingertips, wanting to gnaw on them to clean me? Does the dog play with the bone behind, do the autumn piano sonatas ring out, even when I am not there? Does the voice whisper quietly, the wine slowly empty, the day get checked off on the index card, over and over again, every 45 minutes, while I am not there? Because it certainly feels that way when I return.
There is meant to be something special about places. Everyone knows but isn’t there probably a moment where you discovered it, too? I am trying to teach through place-based education, allowing children to learn about their world through the place where they are, and all that comes with that: care for nature, for community, wonder and connection and exploration. But do I really write through place? More than I meant to. More than I thought I could.
I keep writing Rossland. I thought when I left Vancouver I could write Vancouver, but is it that a heart dwells somewhere and you move to that place to pick it up and take it with you somewhere new? Because I’ve found a writer here in Rossland, in my study, and she seems to be me.
45 minutes a day, 100 days. A combination of a challenge given and a challenge taken, a house bought and a house lived in, a dream set and a dream set upon. I’m doing it. I’m doing it every day.
Follow me down the rabbit hole, in which I write half a sentence of this new novel then emerge for air. Follow me as I ask questions like “Can she speak to seagulls?” and “What’s new on Facebook?” Follow me down the rabbit hole as I get sucked up in a world I am unfurling out of the thinnest recesses of my privacy. Follow me down!
What is exciting about this novel project is that I have a blog called A Novel Journal and my large fan base has been missing me desperately since I moved to the more doable and likeable craft of short story writing. They have been asking themselves where I have gone and my answer is nowhere! I am still dwelling in the doubts and whimsies of the artistic process as a useful avoidance of the creative process itself!
Follow me down as I illuminate for myself the joys and tribulations of sitting on a couch or armchair and pecking mainly at the middle line of my keyboard, expecting greatness. Follow me down.
When I ask myself whether the burner is on, whether my hair straightener is still plugged in, or if this time I’ve found a way of burning down my house in some more creative fashion, what am I doing? The thought, once it has appeared, has no way of disappearing unless I confirm the absence of the imminent danger. I must return home to check that I’ve locked the door. I must check my work email to ensure there is no one angry with me. Without addressing the concern, I cannot go on with my normal day. Everything becomes trivialized and pales in the shadow of this looming, certain life-crisis. Once I’ve ensured the danger is not present, for a brief moment I feel like I am floating, like I have been given a second chance and all before me is a clean slate. Then it begins again: another ambiguity, another mole to whack down.
When I create an anxiety for myself, is it really just a way of avoiding being present in the moment? I lose track of life, as I focus in on the distant enigma; all my energy leaves this plane to that one. My heart rate rises, my breathing thins, and I problem-solve all manners of addressing the question. What I don’t do is focus any energy toward addressing the anxiety.
I cannot rest comfortably in ambiguity, and that must be the root of the burner, of the hair straightener, of the work emails and the ever-flowing news feed on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Every time I sense there might be the possibility of something I don’t know about going on, and there is some clear way of me knowing the answer to that question, I take the bait. By attacking the ambiguity, I’ve convinced myself that ambiguity is wrong.
I had a revelation driving yesterday, thinking of the ovens at the school that me and my students had all left on after baking our apple pies. I remember checking each and every one, but did I really check them properly? No, I convinced myself, I checked that the burners weren’t on. But we only used the ovens! The revelation that followed came from some place deep inside of me I don’t yet know but I sense is a God. It told me (in fewer words): what if instead of fighting the unknown, I turned my sword toward the anxiety?
What if I breathed through every moment of unsureness, worked my way out of it, even made sure to be more mindful each time I real-life turned off the burner or the hair straightener? What if I was simply a more thoughtful person to those around me at every moment? Then I could train myself to react less to the feeling of distress by attacking the reliability of that feeling.
Because how often is the burner actually on? Marc Maron, a great podcaster and comic I listen to who talks often of his anxiety, just recently started his show triumphantly with “This time the burner actually was on!” Mine never has been. The burner is not the problem. I know, because the second I check it I convince myself I didn’t check it well enough. That is often even the nature of the burner: when I check my email, a moment later after I checked it a new message might have arrived, so I must check it again. There is no end to the worry. What needs to be addressed is not the worry, but the worrying.
Life, as far as I know it, seems to be full of ambiguities. I need to be comfortable with that. I need to live with not knowing, and be confident that when I do know something, I will be able to deal with it. And I think the more I leave brain space open to address each moment as it comes, the more I will realize that even when you didn’t leave the burner on, someone else might have, and it’s all about how you react to it. Life is sort of like a game of whack-a-mole but in slower motion, wherein the moles are rational people you know and problems you can solve rather than insatiable subterranean mammals with beady eyes, as they seem at first glance. And maybe you shouldn’t have a hammer.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?
Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.
Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.
What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.
Do not feel alone when you write: remember that one day someone will read this, and will not see you lonely at your desk, your hair undone, the tissues piling up. Feel transformed by the words you write, as though they are sprouts or moulds living inside and feeding off you. Pretend you are surrounded by people watching you, waiting for the unique vocabulary and visual imagery pouring out of your finger pads. One day someone will read this and if they think it’s good they’ll want to be your friend. Do not feel alone alone when you write.
Do not ask yourself questions when you write: know that there is nothing more important than trusting instinct and believing that the word you chose out of nowhere is the very best word. Let the winds of poetry roll off your back and the craziness that possesses wolves at full moon time possess you too. Move forward, like a blind woman with a purpose that she has since forgotten. Trust that the answers will come to you as you reread the words you littered behind you. Do not ask yourself questions when you write.
Do not check Facebook when you write: guess that there is probably someone you know minimally in an incredible place you will never visit because you live your life inside your head. Miss a whole day of group wedding photos and baby videos; use that energy not wasted to write fictional versions of these things! Don’t answer a friend request because you are making friends in your stories, and you can make these friends do and say anything. Do not check Facebook when you write.
Do not read someone a passage: like when you recount a dream, you can be sure that this person will not think the passage is as great as you do. Spend time instead making the writing better, so that person will one day want to sit down and read what you’ve written as though you are a real writer whose book they were given to read for a school assignment. Write that person to whom you don’t want to read your passage into your passage in a venomous way, to supercharge your writing. Do not read someone a passage.
Do not do any of these things when you write, but do them all when you edit.
Feel alone! Let it seep into your psyche until you become a better writer for it, more cynical and isolated, the world your very specific oyster of which only you and the words that you strung together are trapped.
Ask yourself questions! Let the questions become answers become changes, big and small.
Check Facebook! Editing’s boring!
Read someone a passage! See where they wince and where they laugh; where their eyes light up and die down. Even ask them for a suggestion.
In my summer of play-acting again as a writer, I’ve noticed that sometimes I’m not a very good writer. In trying to identify what was going so wrong, I realized that I was acting as an editor while also trying to be a writer. To separate the two parts of my job into creating and cutting is a distinction that works for me in theory, but hey, if I want to check Facebook, that’s a good time to place my editor’s hat on, and if I want to write down whatever comes to my head, which I always do, I am free to call myself back to duty as a writer.
The whole thing is unworthy of categorization until I decide for myself that I need to be more productive and proficient at my job, at which point I might block out times for writing and times for editing, or choose to only edit on paper and only write on the computer. But as the laziness remains, I’m free to continue on this path of two-headed destruction, writing a sentence, rereading the sentence, hating and loving the sentence, changing the sentence, deleting the sentence, and somehow, at some point, my life becoming the sentence.