Life is a rough draft

A few weeks ago, I posted about my surprise at the fact I am now writing a novel. The result of a New Year’s resolution, I wrote and revised 30 pages fairly quickly.  Since then, the focus of the story, and even the main character, has completely changed.

In the time since the last post about the novel, I attended a workshop, perused several books related to novel-writing, read parts of over a dozen books and two dozen articles online for source material.

For the record, I recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the
Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maas. I chose this text at a time when I felt bored with what I was writing. I realized that instead of writing the scenes that excited me, I had become caught up in stringing together the scenes, trying to shape the plot. I felt that I was tied up in the surface, and from this location, started to hear the voices that say “What makes you think you can write a novel, anyway?”

I realized that I am not a plotter. While I like knowing, vaguely, where I am going with the story, the excitement I feel for writing a novel is most vibrant when writing the scenes with the most emotion. In my journal I like to write around the character, to gain a deeper understanding, free writing thoughts about her and her relationships, her profound memories.

The story, as it is taking shape, is now focused on a different character than before. The setting is still the same, but now more concise in the amount of time it covers: roughly 1942 to 1954, in Mexico City, D.F. The characters are expatriates from Europe, who escaped the turmoil of the war to land in Mexico (some, by way of NYC). The main character is originally from northern Spain, lived in Paris as part of the surrealist community of artists and writers, and now finds herself as the “glue” holding together the small expatriate group of friends living in tenement-style housing in Mexico City.

The “so what” of the story is her self-realization; not earth-shattering as an idea, but the rich detail of her experiences and of her memories of Spain and Paris,  combined with complicated relationships with the men in her life, will enrich the story.So will the evolution of her friendships with two (artist/expatriate) women, which will slowly uncover her greatest fears and the barriers she has allowed to form that keep her from fulfilment as an artist.

Woven in: interactions with Mexican artists and writers, and the complicated artstic environment at a time when Mexico (at a national level) struggles to create a national identiy, elevating yet inevitably trivializing the “indio”; a schism between mestizo, indio, and euro that subtly influences her relationships with local artists, and her own self identity. Over time, she will distance herself from the old ties to Paris and the surrealists, particularly those who play into the notion of “woman as muse” vs. artist in her own right. She will identify the sources of her own inspiration as an artist.

This is a very long way to say, sometimes when working on a HUGE project, it is necessary to step back, reconsider the focus, reconnect with the source of inspiration.

Ask: “What is most exciting to you in this work?” This matters.

I realized that my first attempt (focusing on a character loosely based on Leonora Carrington) did not have as much potential for inner conflict; the character was somewhat terse, steady, wise. I felt that I was lured into biography (her life is fascinating enough as it is without being fictionalized). The second attempt tried to encompass a triad of main characters/artists, with changing points of view, but I realized that could get confusing, and might short change each character.

This new attempt–well, we’ll have to see. Only a few loose and freely sketched scenes exist at this moment. But just in the past week, I have been able to sit down and write several pages at a time, feeling the enjoyment of writing. I think that is what it is all about, as I learn how to write a novel.

Jorge Luis Borges said that “writing is nothing but a guided dream.” There is joy in dreaming.

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