I’ve been writing my novel since February of 2015. I wrote most of the first draft last year, up until October, when I began a second course of playwright work at the Sudbury Theatre Centre with Playwrights’ Junction under the direction of Matt Heiti. Then, I took from October until mid-January to work on three new plays. These little plays are still being developed. I’m nearly there with one of them, I think, but you never really know. I mean, you have ideas in your head, but until your fingers hit the keys, well, it’s all up in the air. (One of my literary mentors always says that you can’t ‘think out a story.’ You simply need to write it out, and put it down on the page. That is the only way the story will come, and take its journey, and find its end.)
This weekend, I’m writing the end of my novel, which is tentatively titled “The Donoghue Girl.” The title may change. I know the story will evolve, as it’s only the end of the first draft. There are still so many things to revise. I’ve avoided writing this ending for about a month now, struggling with it in my head, and maybe, just maybe, not wanting the characters to leave me. They really do become a part of your consciousness, and you get to enjoy spending time with them. (I don’t know what that says about me, though….that I may like fictional people more than real ones is a bit of a psychological issue, I’m sure!)
Throughout April, while out in Banff with the Historical Fiction Intensive with Lawrence Hill and a bunch of amazing writers whom I am now blessed to call friends, I struggled and struggled with how the story should end. I had about three possible endings in mind. When I spoke with Larry about my work, he tilted his head and asked, smartly, and intuitively, “So, Kim, do you think you’re avoiding the ending because you just don’t want it to end?” What? I thought he was mad. They’re all fictional people. It’s all made up, even if some parts are taken from old family stories on my mother’s side. Why would I actually sabotage my own ending just to keep them with me? How could that even make sense, logically? It couldn’t, could it? I went away from Banff thinking about that question. I pondered his question on the bus ride from Banff into Calgary–staring open mouthed at the beauty of the Rockies as we passed through them–and then again on the quick flight from Calgary to Edmonton. Good questions and conversations with other writers always make me think….and likely for much too long.
I spent the earlier part of May down on Pelee Island and met some great writers there. I struggled, again, to get words down on paper. Well, that’s not necessarily completely true. I wrote a new scene for one of my plays, “Some Other Country,” and I wrote five or six new poems, which I need for my upcoming book of poems. It’s not like I avoided the novel, but despite a number of 7km walks every day, on my own mostly, but sometimes with other people, I still couldn’t get that baby of a novel ending to move down the creative birth canal. It was so frustrating.
Coming home, so frustrated and disappointed with myself, I had dinner last week with my oldest and dearest friend, fellow writer, Melanie Marttila. Over a glass of wine and some kick ass Thai food, she nudged me a bit. (She does this in all areas of my life, which is why we’ve been friends for so long. She knows me so well that she wants to challenge me to grow, even when it’s most uncomfortable. That’s what a good friend does, I think, especially if you’re both writers and you’ve seen each other through your twenties and thirties.) So….her words, her question: “What if you write the ending and then work backwards? You’ve only got about twenty pages to go, you said…Try that.” At first, I thought, ‘How would that work, exactly?’ I’ve never written a novel before, and am much more comfortable with writing poems and short stories and, now, plays. Then, driving home that night, I heard Larry’s voice echo in my head: “Provoke the ending. Write around it.” What? So, with both of their voices in my head, it all started to rumble around in my skull. Marinating. Like chicken in broth. Or wine.
Let me say now that I think the idea of writers’ block is bullshit. Seriously. I think you need to have ideas, and some sense of planning, even if you’re a so-called “pantser,” someone who writes energetically and flies by the seat of your pants. I think you need a bit of both to make a project this big come to fruition. The scope of a novel is different from the size of a short story. What Alice Munro does in the “space” of a short story is radically different than what Timothy Findley does in the “space” of a novel. They are two different animals, even though both are prose in terms of genre. (Maybe, I’ve been thinking, they’re like two siblings in the same family. My sister and I are radically different; we come from the same parents, but we are complete opposites…the same might be true of short stories and novels.)
So, this week, I’ve been gathering pieces of my novel, stitching them together in a metaphorical way, and re-reading bits and pieces of it all, to see where I want to go next, in terms of ending the thing. A life can’t go on forever, and neither can a novel. (You may not enjoy it when you lose someone you love, but it’s part of life. I’ve learned that twice now, with the deaths of my parents. They keep teaching me lessons that transcribe themselves to other aspects of my life, which I always find intriguing. Leave it to them to keep hanging around…nudging me from beyond and gesturing to me with their half empty bottles of Bud on the camp dock!)
While I was on Pelee Island, I did what I always do….I touched the leaves and caressed the trunks of what I think of as ‘grandmother and grandfather’ trees. (I don’t do this when I’m with other people…especially when they don’t know me.) I do it on my own. I commune with trees. Hard to explain. Maybe you’d just need to know me better! If you’ve known me for long enough, and I like you enough to trust you, I’ll walk with you and not worry if you see me grabbing at trees and leaves. It’s a gift, I think, if someone gets to see me get all zen with my trees! It means I know you won’t judge me for being a druid hobbit girl.😉
Anyway, Pelee is full of ancient aboriginal history and you can feel the energy radiating through the land, water, and sky if you’re sensitive to energetic shifts, as I am. (Yeah, I’m an empath…and intuitive…and sensitive…and creative…so that means I feel stuff deeply, even when I don’t necessarily want to!) When I was on my own, on long walks down the shore either in early morning or in twilight, I would suss out little coves and plunk myself down on a bunch of shore pebbles, running my fingers through them and then gathering some of them up into my pockets. I would watch waves for quite some time, transfixed by the repetitive sound and motion, and then I would listen to the sounds of the birds, or see a white egret lift off from a nearby shore, or even see an eagle guard its nest so that I knew to turn around and walk the other way. I gathered. I gathered while I was on Pelee Island.
Well, first I released. Driving through southwestern Ontario, near London, had made me really emotional. I felt a bit raw and naked, in terms of my soul. I thought too much of my dad, and of trips we took together in that part of the province before he died in December 2011. I have a photographic memory, so I can recall conversations I had years ago with great clarity. I could feel Dad with me as I drove from London down to Kingsville, and I was sad in spirit crossing over to Pelee that day. He was with me, but still far away enough for me to feel my heart aching for the people who have gone from my life. Arriving on that island, which vibrates with intense energy, I was overwhelmed by its beauty: birds, stars, water, rocks, trees. For a northern girl who loved her family’s camp in the bush, on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing as she was growing up, and who loved nothing more than taking a novel off to read under a soft pine tree on her own, Pelee rustled up my soul.
So, after I wept a bit in London, and again on walks down long Pelee roads by myself, I released a lot of grief. I walk a lot. I also cry when I walk. It’s probably why I walk alone a lot of the time. You don’t want to freak out people who hardly know you when you feel so deeply, do you? So after I released, I gathered. I walked long beaches with new friends and gathered pebbles, shells, and pieces of sea glass. By the end of the week, Sue was lovely enough to know that I was drawn to sea glass and presented me with thoughtful pieces that she had found. (She knew I was searching desperately for them, as they feel like magic to me somehow…how they just arrive up out of the sand and pebbles and waves magically…and offered them to me.) That was one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been given….along with a crow feather, which my friend Violet gave to me a year or two ago.
Gathering things from the natural world links to gathering things within the scope of a novel, I think. I’ve been trying too hard to force it to a conclusion, this novel. Tonight, sitting here with the dogs, and listening to the music of Glen Hansard (I love his words and his voice) in the background, I just started writing. It felt good. It felt right. Words came. The ending is almost done. I’ve released, and I’ve gathered. It makes me realize that the lesson is in both parts…that to gather things together, to bring new things into being, you need to release past things, even if you feel comfortable with them in your life. Same thing with novel writing. You can’t wed yourself to what you’ve written. You need to be objective, to look at it all from a place of loving detachment (if there can be such a thing!) and then trundle forward.
So, friends, be mindful of what surrounds you. Look up at the sky at night. See that gorgeous moon and the strings of stars like far off patio lanterns draped across the universe, and watch the shadows of leaves dance above you in a midnight breeze. Swing on a swing again, as if you were a child rather than an adult. Then, gather it all in. Gather it in, and let it out again, in what you write down on the page. That’s what I’m doing this weekend….gathering the pieces together to find the ending, and having faith that it will all make sense some day soon. And knowing that the story needs to be told. And knowing that, even though you’ll miss them, these people you’ve created and loved (real and imagined) will stay in your heart….long after the last page is written.