This is me, at the end of a six and a half hour editing session (I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a long writing day). My brain was absolute mush. Emotionally I was frizzle-fried (I cry a lot when I’m working). Intellectually I was reviewing my work, making sure it works as far as plot and story arc and characterization. Physically my body ached from my cheap-o desk chair and my throat hurt from all the reading.
When I look at this picture, I see an exhausted author. One who has been through the ringer with her characters.
Flannery O’Connor said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
Yup, Flannery. That is how I feel now.
I’ve been working on writing novels for six years now with very few breaks. I’ve plunged into the lives of prostituted girls, anxiety laden women, families who have lost their loved ones, a young girl living in the middle of an ecological and relational nightmare. I’ve put on the skin of pretty nasty people in an effort to write them correctly. I’ve worn the grief and suffering of others to be authentic.
To piggy back on Flannery’s thought, these novels have been terrible and wonderful at the same time. I couldn’t quit now if I wanted to. But there are days when I feel like my emotions can’t take anymore. Novelists are extremely sensitive souls. We feel everything so deeply, so profoundly. And that includes what we do to our characters.
The other day I had the overwhelming feeling that I was torturing my protagonist, Pearl Spence. She’s only ten years old and I was putting her through too much. Knowing that a key scene was approaching, I dreaded reading that part. When I actually reached it, I blubbered through the whole thing, feeling so badly for what I made.
I’m sometimes tempted to write novels about puppy hugs and rainbow kisses. I wonder what it’s like to write an ooey gooey, mushy love story where the biggest conflict is whether or not Ken Doll has a crush on Barbie.
But there is no way I could write that kind of story. It isn’t in me.
I’ve read too much Steinbeck to write like that.
Speaking of Steinbeck…
He’s right, you know. It’s the burden of the novelist to feel deeply, especially for others.
And, for that matter, it’s the burden of any who claim to be their brother’s keeper. It is the only way to understand life and love and hurt and joy.
Because of that, tomorrow and the day after that and for many years to come (I hope), I will wake up knowing that I have a story to tell.