On a day like today, I like to think of myself as Invisibly Prolific, even though I haven’t published a novel in 8 years. This is a kind way of saying horrifically inefficient. For everything I finish, I write pages and scenes and chapters I don’t use; I throw in extra characters, I take wrong turns. Sometimes I start novels and never go back to them. Some years ago I wrote an entire novel in five weeks, just to see if I could. (Answer: only kinda. It’s shaped like a novel, but the characters are fatally stunted. At this moment, I remember my favorite image—a mouse brown felt hat with a mouse gray band—but not whether I ever used it somewhere else.) Four years ago, I had a novel collapse on me, and though I have managed to extract a few chapters based on the minor characters, the heart of it is gone forever, I think. Pompeii, Atlantis: buried like that.
Mostly, I have embraced this in myself. Throwing out pages is much less painful if you don’t struggle, if you even decide to be a bit butch about it. You play with alligators, you’re gonna get bit. God help me, I still like alligators. My other major coping mechanism, in this part of my life as well as in many others, is amnesia. I forget what I’ve written. I’m always finding files on my computer that I have no memory of.
So I’m heading towards the end of a novel (I hope). All along I’ve had in my head a scene inspired by a scene I wrote four years ago—not from the collapsed novel, but from the project I picked up afterwards. I’d been talking to an editor who asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a young adult novel, and I thought, well, I’m at loose ends writing-wise, why not try. So I did, for a while. It was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. (I’m always working on versions of The Snow Queen.) Then a lot of things happened in my life, and I mostly forgot about it. Tiny bits morphed into the novel I’m working on now, including plans for a scene at the end of the book. So a couple of days ago I found the old project, just to look at that scene.
Well. I’d forgotten I’d written 91 pages of the thing. & I read it. & God help me, I thought it was sort of all right. Could I go back to it?
The lesson, actually, is that I shouldn’t have read it. There are the aforementioned pieces of the book that have worked their way into my new novel, which make the two projects conjoined twins with three legs between them. They could probably both live but not without serious problems, should they be separated.
The scene, by the way, features one character in bed, talking to another character out of bed. Oh my heavens I write a lot of scenes with one character in bed, one character out. It’s a goddamn motif. A psychologist might suggest I have problems with intimacy, making my characters continually perpendicular instead of parallel, but really I think I’m just sleepy. I wander around the rooms of my fiction, and I think, You know what would be nice in this corner? A bed.
(As an aside: I walked down Longwood Avenue in Boston to a dental appointment, and realized I was passing Brigham and Women’s, formerly the Boston Lying-in Hospital, where I was born. As a kid I loved that phrase: Lying-In. Born lying down, hope to die lying down, of course my characters spend a lot of time supine!)