Friends may have noticed a slight up-tick in the writing time, or a sense of greater urgency to get to work, and it is true: I am working on a specific project that is occupying my mind.
I would like to describe exactly how my mind is being occupied by this book, because it feels like a new experience. I am calmly, joyfully, quietly, peacefully occupied.
I have blogged here before about my Nicaragua project, and the Juliet stories, several of which were published last fall in The New Quarterly.
And I have blogged about my attempt to write some of the material as memoir, since there is overlap between what my character Juliet experiences and what I experienced as a child. (I lived in Managua, Nicaragua during the contra war, in 1984 and 1985; my parents were peace workers).
But the memoir did not get very far. I found myself frustrated by what was–by the intransigence of fact. Life unfolds in a dreadfully under-plotted fashion. There is a narrative arc to it, but it is not always the arc one wishes for, as a writer. For reasons I can’t analyze, I find more truth and symmetry and meaning in fiction than in non-fiction (this is true as a reader, and as a writer). In fiction, anything can happen; but the things that happen have to make sense. In non-fiction, everything has happened; and some of those things do not make sense. The Juliet stories play with that line between fiction and non-fiction: I’ve created a fictional world rent with the holes and spaces created by memory.
This all sounds too theoretical. There’s nothing theoretical about writing a story. I am at a loss to describe how it’s done. When I have an idea for a story, it is very general, and sits in my mind in a visual and emotional way. I hold a particular emotion at the front of my mind that I want the story to contain. And I see the story’s structure, the physical shape of it, in a very visual way that is almost impossible to describe. I don’t think up the structure–I see it, as if I am discovering something that already exists, and then translating it into words.
The story I am writing right now is about a young woman visiting her grandmother, and I have a sense of time slowing down within the grandmother’s apartment, which I think relates to the grandmother’s physical difficulty moving, the slow pace of her life, and her stretched-out understanding of time. I see the entrance into the story like a wall with an arm reaching through it and making a tunnel, down which Juliet is travelling, and Juliet is glancing down side tunnels and being reminded of other things, and letting her imagination sneak off, but she continues to be pulled along this tunnel, and as I get further into the story, I see that the tunnel is the hallway of her grandmother’s apartment building, and I see that Juliet wants to reach her grandmother’s door (yet, Juliet is already also inside the apartment–so the story must belong to two separate times, must be in part a reminiscence). I sense that she cannot enter her grandmother’s apartment again. I sense grief, and a desire to be let in; but I also sense Juliet’s curiosity; it will rescue her, and the story.
Weird. I’ve never tried to do that before–to explain the strong visual sensations I have while working or thinking about a story. The structural visuals have very little to do with what turns up on the page (the story has neither floating characters nor tunnels, I promise); though I wonder whether a reader might sense their presence underlying the story. Every story has a shape, and a texture, and a flavour. The flavour can be the hardest to get right. Often a story resists being turned into something that it’s not. You just cannot change the underlying mood, which is why I think this invisible structural patterning is so crucial to what turns up on the page.
I would like to write three more stories for Juliet. I have them in my mind, and when I think about writing them, I feel a combination of fear and great purpose and excitement.
I began working on this material in 2006. I applied for and received a Canada Council grant, based on an entirely fictional idea, nothing whatsoever to do with Juliet; part of the grant went towards travelling to Nicaragua for research. I took my family, and my mother and one of my brothers along on the journey. While there, I began to understand that the story I wanted to write was not the entirely fictional one proposed; the story was closer to autobiography. I’ve never wanted to publish stories about myself, and took care in Hair Hat not to. But I’d written and published a story in 2005 set in Nicaragua, and I realized it had potential to belong to something larger; I just had to leap over my fear of the autobiographical.
It would be tedious to recount all the different forms this material has taken in the years between then and now. The character of Juliet has always been a part of it, though in the first story I wrote, she was named Mary. At first, I thought it was the mother’s story (her name is Gloria, and always has been). But the further I got into the project, the more I began to see that it was Juliet’s story–the child’s story.
It was only this spring that I discovered something new, and it came as a hallelujah moment: the stories stretch beyond Nicaragua and into Juliet’s future. My Juliet now gets to be a mother, herself, and to reflect on that. She gets to be a teenager. She gets to be single, and she gets to be married. She passes through all of the awkward stages to adulthood. She is fluid in age and understanding, and time itself is fluid, and in many stories she is a child and an adult.
This year has been one of calm revelation. I’ve moved away from my parallel dream of becoming a midwife, and accepted that I am a creative person, and that making things is my gift. I can’t change who I am, and it doesn’t matter whether the world generally assigns value to it. In the years since my first book was published, I’ve told myself that I would keep being a writer if only … fill-in-the-blank. If only I’d get this grant, or publish that story, or win this award. In other words, I was hoping for visible affirmation of my choice to keep slogging away at what is a quiet, interior occupation often plagued by doubt. But every if-only achieved proved too temporary, too easily knocked down by every if-only not achieved. I began pursuing more seriously my interest in midwifery. I am so glad that I did. Had I not, it might always have teased at me–the what-if, the could-I-have-been? The deeper my exploration, the more I discovered (to my deep disappointment) my interest waning.
My interest in writing has yet to wane. May it never. Slowly, I’ve come to understand. Being a writer is not about achieving if-onlys. It is about accepting that one is a writer–and not necessarily a good writer or a well-known writer or a celebrated writer or a successful writer. It’s about being what one is, regardless of outcome.
What the Juliet stories have taught me is that some stories just long to become. They feel necessary. I am not a midwife to babies, but I am a midwife to stories, and I have been a midwife to this character.
(Thanks for the thought on being a midwife to moments, Janis; that helped me pull this idea together).