I’m up on Whidbey Island writing a novel. I have no idea how to write a novel. This novel actually began in 1997 with a very long short story that I thought would develop itself. I thought a novel would spool from my imagination without my having to think about anything like structure or an outline. I managed to get through 16 years of school with a degree in English literature and education without learning how to make an outline.
I’m here to say that if I actually finish this book, then anyone can write a novel. I come to it as, well, yes an English major, a writer for 45 years, a published memoirist, a disciplined reader, and a self-initiatory learner. I have taken one post-graduate writing class that was good for my ego but I didn’t learn anything. I have read a stack of books about writing fiction, some more useful than others
Here has been my approach to this novel: Well, I guess I need a character. Check. She needs to live somewhere. Check. She needs to say stuff so I need people for her to talk to. Check. Now there are so many characters in play I need a graph to chart where everyone is every hour of the first two days. Check.
There has to be some kind of conflict so I need a plot. I was stuck on Plot for YEARS. Since 1997 I have amassed a collection of interesting characters, many small vignettes, and an overarching idea that I kept hoping would coalesce into a novel.
Finally I had to break down and construct an outline. I did that last September, the last time I was on Whidbey. That felt like such an enormous accomplishment that it kept me cheerfully working on this book in dribs and drabs even after my time got reassigned to making a living.
The election and my subsequent mainlining of sugar drained my energy to an extent I found alarming. Then I slipped on the stairs and ended up with a bump and bruise the size of Montana on my butt. Between that and the nasty weather, the election and sugar I thought I might never again even get out of bed.
So really against odds, I am back at the Buddha House at my favored writing retreat with my voice teacher, Tommie, down the hill in the Big House. The deer are here, the goats and the big shaggy white dog, Mishka, who drools and who has those poor goats herded to within an inch of their lives.
Tommie and I have dinner together. The rest of the day I am alone writing, walking, looking at the world. I’ve never been here in the winter. Whidbey Island is famously windy and the wind is going to town as I write this. At night the world is an opaque black and I need a flashlight to get down the hill to Tommie’s house.
I drove up to Whidbey on Christmas morning. I remember last year thinking it had been one of the loveliest Christmases in memory. This year it feels like one of the most disorienting. It’s because the election is hanging like smog over everything. It stinks and I can’t see. I tell myself that I am groping to connect but in fact my connections feel more vibrant than ever.
My watercolor class has coalesced into a group of five regulars who say to me, “Just tell me the date and I’ll be there. I don’t care what we are painting.” They all came over early December and I showed them how to paint a poinsettia. I made wassail and lit a fire and we painted and gossiped.
My friends Nancy and Scott came on the Solstice for a Scotch tasting. I have a hobby that’s really beyond my means: single malt Scotch. (“Oh, Elena, everyone needs an expensive hobby,” Scott said.) I scored four bottles of Scotch from friends this year, including a 16 year old Lagavulin. The three of us had a nice sampling, including the Laphroaig Nancy brought. I felt known and loved. I won’t say that is necessarily an unusual occurrence. What’s unusual is for me to feel safe enough to let it in while it’s happening. I tend to get out my “known and loved” experiences to play with when I’m home alone.
The OK Chorale had four performances, all of them satisfying. Next year the Chorale will have been in existence for 25 years. Twenty five years. I’ve been with the Chorale that long because I started it. After me our longest standing member Jean (tenor)–has been there 18 years. Susan (soprano) and Terry (alto) and Gail (alto) have been there almost as long. This year I especially felt a sense of our continuity and commitment to each other. The OK Chorale is a community, not just a choir.
I took Christmas bread to my former analyst, something I have done for 35 years. When I was still seeing him I used to joke that I planned my baking schedule around his office hours. I still do. He has moved to Edmonds, his fifth office in the years I have known him and I wanted to see it. Even when I don’t see him for years it feels very important to me to know where he is.”
We hugged. We touched each other. That has never happened since the day I met him in 1985 when we shook hands.
My former student (the brilliant and beautiful) Anna put together an elegant tea and we spent an afternoon talking, both of us still shaken over the election. I don’t want her to know how much I count on the energy of her and her compatriots in this terrible new world order. I think she knows. In any case, she read my posts.
My cousin, Sue, in England and I have exchanged many sisterly emails since my visit in June and since Brexit. After our election she with relief handed us the baton for being the stupidest nation on earth.
My friend Andrea visited the snobby Chef Shop (so I don’t have to) and bought me a bag of marcona almonds, which she delivered on Christmas Eve. I am crunching them up here on the island and thinking about how much I enjoy the friendship with her. A friend is someone who knows you like marcona almonds and that you had a withering time when you went to the Chef Shop so she goes there for a bag of marcona almonds and gives them to you on Christmas.
Gwen, my neighbor who knows something about just about everything, and I had our celebration on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day: ham sandwiches, fruit salad, pumpkin pie, Scotch. Gifts. We both like to open things so we try to have lots of things for the other to unwrap. I walked back across the street on Christmas Eve in the cold, in the dark. Everything felt different. Everything felt the same.
And here I am trying to write a novel. I have 62 pages and 16,000 words. It lurches forward for a while, then stalls. Over and over I think, “I don’t know how to do this.” Then I go for a walk, play the piano or sing in Tommie’s studio, go into Freeland for something or other at the grocery store. Something comes to me and I write another section.
I don’t mind the feeling of “I don’t know how to do this.” It’s actually kind of exciting. It means that I can try anything. I can try everything. It’s like singing: When it’s not coming out easily, I talk to my vocal cords: “Well, ok, then how will you sing this note?” Something new happens.
It’s like psychoanalysis. I lie on the couch and I start talking. I say anything, I say everything. Something emerges. Something I never thought to think of. Then somewhere along the road I feel lighter, more spacious, calmer.
It’s like painting. When I don’t know what else to do, I throw in a big gash of purple. Where’s the harm? It’s only paper. And then the big gash of purple transforms the painting into something startling and alive.
I think this terrible new world-order won’t be all that different for the artists, the poets, the musicians, the actors and storytellers. The terrible new world-order has been there all along and the artists have always known it. Nothing changes for us now that everybody else knows, too. It’s a not bad thing to say “I don’t know how to do this.” We continue to do what we do. We can all try anything, we can all try everything. Something new will happen. Something startling and alive.