Category: Random Thoughts

Fictional Empty Nest

I recently completed a round of novel edits so substantial that I practically rewrote the manuscript from scratch. It took way longer and was way harder than I expected. Those last few weeks, as each day blended into the next, I couldn’t wait to be done. I imagined the relief, the satisfaction, the freedom that would come once I sent this round off to my editor.

Anything that comes next with this book will be easier than this round of edits, I thought.

Once I’m done this, I never have to write another novel again, I promised myself.

Okay, so that last promise is highly unlikely, but I did promise myself this: Once I send this in, I can take the summer to play.

By play I mean write, of course, but write other stuff. Experiment with audio. Write some shorter pieces, maybe some flash fiction or an article. Do some art journalling. Write some letters. Maybe finally launch that online writing class I’ve been meaning to get to for years.

Summer of Play

That promise of a summer to play got me through those last hard weeks of edits. I had blank notebooks lined up and ready, I had picked a few books to read and online courses I wanted to take. I started reaching out to my network for Zoom coffee dates, and even a few IRL coffee dates, since we are allowed to have those now.

At last, the moment arrived. A few weeks ago, I sent the manuscript off to my editor. I lasted two whole days before the urge to jump into a new novel almost got the better of me.

I managed to resist that urge, but then, I came up with a plan to launch my online writing class in July — I’ve taught the class plenty of times and have the structure and the content, so… why not?

I managed to resist that urge too. I’m sitting with the discomfort of not having a novel or big project to escape into. Discomfort, and, I have to say as well, grief.

The Grief of Finishing

I’ve felt this every time I’ve sent a novel off, and every time I’ve avoided the feeling by jumping into the next novel right away. This time I’m taking a look at it what these big feelings are about. A few weeks in, and I’ve found some clues.

First, I miss my characters. I know lots of writers talk about this, and it is very true. We make up these people and then spend every day with them, get them to do things and learn and transform. Then we send them off into the world to fend for themselves. Surely a bit of empty nest syndrome is only natural?

In my case, my protagonist is based on a dear relative of mine, my great-aunt June, who passed away in 2014. So it’s kind of like I brought her back to life and then spent months and months with her and now she’s gone all over again.

Second, there’s the loss of identity. Writing mystery novels is a huge part of who I am. I’ve wanted to do this since I was seven years old. Other than a summer off here and there, I’ve worked consistently towards this dream of mine since 2006. Who am I if I’m not a mystery writer, even for a couple of months?

Finally, there’s the gap. The gap that every creative person faces — more of a chasm really — between concept and execution. I had a big vision for this novel when I set out. A vision that was bound only by the edges of my imagination. I had great hopes, which, by the very nature of the process, got whittled down and nailed into place and became limited, as the concept became a material thing.

Yes, I’ll keep editing and polishing and improving it, but the edges are pretty much set. It is contained. Did I manage to capture some of that vastness that captivated me enough to do this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. And that not knowing is uncomfortable.

So far, I’ve managed to resist diving into something big as a way to avoid this discomfort. I think now I’m ready to start with something smaller. Something I can move through and pass on in weeks, rather than months and years. I’m going to start with an article on winter swimming. See if someone wants to publish it, or maybe record it myself on audio and share it for fun. And then move on.

I’ve gathered some stardust into a novel, flawed and imperfect though it is, and I hope to be able to share it with you someday. Maybe even in the not too distant future. Meantime, I hope you are gathering stones and stardust and glitter of your own and calling it done and sharing it in whatever way you do.

[This post is an excerpt from my monthly letter, which went out recently to my email list. I guess it’s like a newsletter, but I call it a letter, because to me, that’s what it is. A letter from the heart, to my readers. Some readers write back, and have for years now. We’ve got a whole thing going on. If you’d like to join us, we’d be more than happy to have you! You can sign up here. ]

The Fine Art of Noticing

First, A Story

Every year, a friend of mine organizes a staff Christmas party for her one-person business. She calls it the Company of One Christmas Party, which I think is a brilliant name.

The first year she was indeed alone, and she posted a photo of her solo lunch on social media. She talked about what a great time she had, how important it is to celebrate milestones as a solo-preneur, even (or perhaps especially), those milestones that no one else can see. (Like say, your company earning enough extra money in a year to take yourself out for a nice lunch.)

Of course that was the last time my friend had a solo lunch — a bunch of us that run our own businesses hopped on board, and we’ve been having “staff” Christmas parties together ever since. Sometimes they happen as late as March, because that’s when all of us can make it happen, and I think one year it was even in summer, and that was okay too. (This year, rather than have the party on Zoom, we have held off. Maybe we can have take out in the park when things warm up and open up a bit.)

What I want to tell you about is something that we all witnessed at one of our Christmas staff party lunches. There were a whole lot of us that year, and it was late Spring and we stayed so long that the restaurant staff were mopping the floors around us, so I’m pretty sure it was a dinner, not a lunch, but you get the idea.

Part way through the meal, I noticed a couple sitting at a table across the room. There was something very tense about their situation, I picked that much up at first glance.

Without me even being aware of it, the writer in me perked up. What was it? Where was the tension coming from? Was it in their body language? They were just a young couple, having dinner, weren’t they? How did I reach the conclusion, after barely a glance, that this was a conflicted moment for them?

At the time, I was not thinking about how this question might serve me as a writer. I don’t go into experiences looking for writing prompts, and the idea that I could be that transactional as a person makes me shudder. I think it’s more that I cannot help but notice these kinds of details because I am a writer. The curiosity about the people and world around me comes first. The noticing comes first. The practice of turning those details into story comes much, much later, if at all.

I was at a table with six or eight fabulous women, each one an entrepreneur or remote worker, making a living in a small mountain town by their wits, talent and the sheer force of their creativity. I crave that kind of connection, and every single one of these women was a friend. It was a pretty spectacular outing, and yet, I kept being distracted by the couple at the table across the room.

I knew it was tense. But how did I know? I looked closer.

I decide it must be their clothes. She’s wearing a tank dress in a silky material, a pastel-coloured wrap that looks soft and inviting and a pair of tights. Leather boots that hug her thin calves. I’d love a pair of boots like that. I bet they cost more than a semester of my son’s piano lessons. Her hair is curled and shiny, she’s wearing full makeup. We’re in a mountain town, remember. Dressed up is a clean hoodie and Blundstones.

He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Like guys everywhere, I think, but even more than that. He looks like he’s made an extra effort to look like he’s making no effort. I know that looks can be deceiving — his t-shirt might be ripped-on-purpose silk-cashmere, his jeans might be designer don’t-you-dare-ever-wash-them, but I really don’t think that was the case.

Could it be their expressions?

They’re not talking, or when they do, it ’s not for long. She smiles and says something. He replies in a mono-syllable, then the conversation halts. In the quiet minutes, I watch her face. The yearning I see there makes my heart ache. It also makes me think this is not their first date. Could you have that much yearning for someone you’ve never met before? I start to think that this is a break up date. Or maybe a fight date.

She smiles, her whole face animated, and says something. The hope hangs in her face for a moment, smile sustained, eyebrows high, eyes too bright. It takes a few seconds after his grunt of a reply for her expression to fade, like the tension being let go from an elastic.

It was so remarkable that I tapped the arm of the woman next to me and asked her what she thought was going on. Eventually, everyone at our table was taking surreptitious looks at the couple. Now, I’m not sure there’s a way that we could have been discreet about this, eight self-starting women staring at one couple, but we were quiet when we conferred with each other. And we all reached the same conclusion. This was a date from hell.

By the time she got up to go to the bathroom, we were all watching. And you won’t believe what happened.

He started eating French fries off her plate.

What do You Notice?

I’m going to leave that story there, at the height of tension, because the story itself is not my point. My point is that writing starts with curiosity. Writing comes from noticing. Good writing is full of specific detail, so, it follows that noticing details wherever you are, and letting them sift down so that you can rummage through them later, is just something that a writer does.

There are the details themselves, and then there’s the viewer’s opinion about the details — which gets expressed as point of view. As the viewer in this instance, I immediately think it’s a bad date. Maybe they hooked up once, and now he’s moved on, and she’s hoping it will turn into something more. My experience in life makes it easy for me to assume that he’s trying to get away with the minimum amount of effort. Also, I’m jealous of her boots.

But what if this scene had a more sympathetic viewer? What if they are not a couple, but brother and sister. What if she’s flown in from the city to check on her brother, who has a mental illness and has been having a hard time. Maybe this is as hard as he can try. Maybe him even showing up in the restaurant and eating a meal is a miracle in itself. Maybe it’s part of a very different story than the one I imagined.

What do you think this story is? Could be anything. That’s the thing – you’re the writer. This kind of detail is your clay. You get to call upon some details, picking the ones that will build your story.

You can see how witnessing a small vignette like this can keep a writer busy for a long time.

I hope you are still showing up for your writing time. If you are looking for something to do, feel free to play around with this story and fill in your own details. If you were the viewer, what would you notice?

P.S. I am developing an on-line course about getting your writing done without going to battle. Peace, Love and Writing your Novel or something along those lines, (okay, the title is a work in progress). If you’d like to receive and email from me when the course is ready to go, drop me a line here and let me know!