Nineteen years ago, I sat under a tree in the oldest part of the Rutgers campus and began to freewrite, as instructed by the poet Deena Linett, my professor in the New Jersey Writing Project. The idea behind the NJ Writing Project was to improve K-12 teachers’ ability to teach writing through an intensive writers’ workshop experience, but I was there for a less noble purpose: the program offered six graduate credits for two weeks of coursework, so I thought I’d get an easy head start on my masters, a degree someone said would improve my chances in a tough job market. I talked my boyfriend into taking it with me so that we’d each get some graduate credits, pick up a bit of writing pedagogy, and score some creative time together.
But it’s terrible what can happen to a person who messes around in the subconscious with all that freewriting. If you’re not careful, you may sit on the grass under an ancient college oak tree and get an idea that won’t let go of you for two decades.
Mine began simply with an image of a girl with long red hair running out of a house into the summer sunshine. Ten pages of freewriting later, she had acquired a reason to run, an orchard to run to, and an observer to watch her run. The house had obtained a secret. I still have the scrawled pages I read to my NJWP group that afternoon. They loved the girl and wanted to know more about her, so for the rest of NJWP, I wrote every day about my redhead and several generations of her family. I hadn’t meant to begin a novel. It was sort of an accident.
From that summer to this one, I worked on the story in great bursts, tiny trickles, or not at all. When I was pregnant with my second child, I would drop my daughter off at nursery school, go to a diner, consume an enormous breakfast, then write nonstop until pickup time. At other times, I’d go years without writing a word. When I blew out the candles every year, I would wish to finish the story before my next birthday. I would draft chapters, genealogies, histories and maps on the backs of SAT vocabulary packets while my students were taking practice tests, or on discarded printouts at the reference desk once I became a librarian. I shoved the scraps into the disintegrating notebook into which I had scribbled the original freewrite, and although I’ve lost checks, legal documents, appointment cards, bills and countless permission slips over the years, I have never lost a single page or barely-legible note of the story.
Whether I was writing or not, the characters always spoke to me while I changed diapers or washed dishes or zoned out during a grad school course. They were like imaginary friends I grew to know extremely well, even outside of the several hundred handwritten pages I had produced about them. Their story built slowly in my head, a tale that spanned seventy years. I knew this didn’t count as writing, but the Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward P. Jones, who worked on The Known World for years while making a living copyediting articles about taxes (taxes!) followed a similar process:
For 10 years he rarely wrote any of his novel, which was sometimes difficult to explain to his agent and editors.
“I would say, ‘I’m working it out in my head.’ People don’t see that as writing. But I can see the people and I can hear them. . . I would just go over and over and over it in my head. That’s the most important thing, even before they have names.”
Jones’ method was not the standard one, but reading that interview in 2003 gave me hope that maybe daydreaming and scribbling on the backs of things might be a form of writing, after all.
I made up my mind this spring that for the first time ever, I would not teach English or SATs during the summer, that I would devote the time off from school to writing the novel I had accidentally begun almost twenty years before. I dared to call it a novel to myself and to my family, though in the past the loftiest name I would give it was “story,” if I mentioned it at all. I dared to think that perhaps I could complete a full draft before school started again. I dared to tell people about my goal, thinking that the fear of shame if I didn’t accomplish it couldn’t hurt. I dared to join a writing group and to risk reading chapters to knowledgeable, experienced writers. I dared to think of myself as a writer, one who didn’t want to die without writing at least one book, whether or not it ever got published or made a nickel. “I want to be buried with it,” I told my husband, the boyfriend who had gamely signed up for the NJ Writing Project with me.
But today is August 30th. I went back to work today, and the students begin tomorrow. The summer was not the artistic idyll I had imagined, mostly because life is not in the business of supplying perfect conditions. I didn’t even come close to finishing, so why am I not devastated? Why don’t I feel like a wretched failure?
Only because I learned so much about writing this summer. I learned more about novels than I had in decades of reading obsessively, in years of studying, debating and teaching about fiction. Just as the New Jersey Writing Project had promised, I learned about writing by writing.
In two, possibly three, upcoming essays on Perfect Whole, I’ll tell you what I learned.
Thanks to Neil Fein of Magnificent Nose for good editing advice.