Two weeks ago I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for a year. My kids were spending the week with their grandparents and Andrew was backpacking with his brothers for a few days and I went feral—falling into irregular patterns of eating, sleeping, and grooming—and wrote over 13,000 words in five days. I was determined that I would finish it during this huge gift of a week and then actually enjoy our upcoming family vacation. I would bask in the glow of this momentous accomplishment and let the draft rest during the back-to-school crunch and agonizing transitions of September. I would pick it up again in October and revise it during the coming academic year.
But after an initial dazed feeling and a celebratory dinner with Andrew during which I said, repeatedly, I don’t actually feel good. I just feel weird, I woke up in the morning realizing that I felt not weird, but terrible. It wasn’t that thing I’ve heard of where people miss their characters. I’m big on revision and I write long. I’ve known all along I’d still be spending plenty of time with these characters after I finished the first draft. Before I finished the draft, I was actually looking forward to revising. I knew there were plot holes and characterization I’d need to work on. But I’d had the ending in my sights for a while. The ending, I thought, was solid, if I could only get to it. I got to it. And I hated it. It pained me to know it was on my hard drive. If I died suddenly, someone might open the file and think less of me. That’s where my head was at twenty-four hours after reaching this much-anticipated milestone.
That day I cleaned about half of my house at a very detailed level. It took three hours and the rest was still a mess. Then I tried to go to Costco and took 95 North instead of South. I know how to get to Costco but not on that day. By the time I realized my mistake I was stuck in rush hour traffic going nowhere I needed or wanted to go. I drove home in defeat, not wanting to get stuck in even worse traffic and now doubting my capacity to make good choices at Costco, a dicey proposition even on a normal day. As my futile journey neared its end, a song by Aimee Mann, one of my favorite songwriters, came on the radio. It was “Wise Up,” which is nearly fifteen years old and isn’t regularly played on the radio anymore. It’s gorgeously sad and it features prominently in Magnolia, a movie I absolutely loved right up until its horrible ending, and then I was like, “Is this a joke?” And then lots of swearing.
There are plenty of movies I don’t like, but there’s only one that made me feel so much and then squandered its potential so severely that I still get angry thinking about it fifteen years later. On the other hand, I get it. I imagine the trouble was that there was so much going on, so many characters in pain, so much damage that couldn’t possibly resolved, that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director, threw up his hands and [spoiler!] made frogs rain down from the sky. And there were lots of coincidences. I don’t remember exactly. I can’t stand to watch it again.
It took me hours to fall asleep that second night after I finished. I kept myself awake trying to think of an ending that would be good, or at least less bad. I read a lot of novels, but I don’t remember how most of them end. There are the romantic comedy endings, of course, so satisfying and predictable. Elizabeth Bennett ends up with Mr. Darcy. So does Bridget Jones. So many misunderstandings, but it all works out in the end! I love these books (and movies), but I’m not trying to write that kind of book. The one book that jumps to my mind immediately as having a perfect ending is Sophie’s Choice. I’ve read it several times, most recently right after September 11, 2001. I think I needed a horrific story with a hint of redemption so tiny I could believe in it. It helped me. I want to write a book that feels like that.
I was in the middle of reading a big fat, recent, well-reviewed-in-all-the-right-publications book I won’t name. I decided that instead of cleaning the rest of my house or risking another trip to Costco I would spend my remaining day of freedom finishing it. It’s fast-moving and takes a huge turn in the middle, and after the turn I had slowed down my pace. The protagonist is faced with a terrible choice, and I knew that no matter what she decided, her life would be ruined. It was excruciating. I could hardly stand to turn the pages, but the entire time I was reading, I felt confident that I was in good hands and the ending would feel right for the story. This is the feeling I always want to have as a reader, and it’s certainly the feeling that I want my someday readers to have. But after all the suspense and torment and psychological accuracy of her moral dilemma, she is completely let off the hook. It didn’t make me Magnolia-level furious, but it was disappointing.
And I realized that the version of my book resting on my hard drive right now has the same problem. I don’t want to punish my protagonist, but I don’t want everything to work out perfectly, either. She should have to make a difficult choice. I have read or heard advice along these lines countless times. Still, it’s not easy to come up with the right choice. I thought I had sort of done it, but I hadn’t. Among the questions I need to answer: What am I trying to say with this book? What does it mean? For over a year, these big questions have come in and out of focus as I’ve worked on the nitty gritty of making up people and making things happen to them.
That night, Andrew and I watched Birdman instead of part of a TV series because I insisted on watching something with an ending. I did not like the movie much, and I really didn’t like the ending. No frogs falling from the sky, but, well, kind of. I know. I’m a crank. A fiction writer with no sense of whimsy. But I maintain that whimsy is not the same thing as imagination.
I drove to Albany to pick up my kids. I felt as if I’d gone away and left the door unlocked. How could I have left an ending like that just sitting there? But I did. The kids.
I’d been waiting to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell, until I had time to give it the attention it deserved, and three hours alone in the car was my opportunity. I’d heard a couple of tracks and reviews, and I knew it was about the death of his mother, in 2012. She was schizophrenic, an alcoholic, and she’d mostly abandoned her kids when Stevens was one. After that, he spent just a few summers with her and saw her rarely, but he saw her at the end. I’ve liked some things he’s done and not been into others, but this album is remarkable. The tracks blend together. It’s not hooky, but it’s melodic. It sounds beautiful (if you want to listen to a track, try “Fourth of July.”) What astonishes me is the courage it took him to make this album, his decision to probe his deepest wound, to try to make sense of things that will never really make sense, and then to put this fragile and personal thing out into the world. This is the kind of work that inspires me.
When I arrived in Albany, I snuck up on my younger son, who was happy to see me and who spoke to me in his funny little voice, always striking after some time apart. My older son had just a few pages left of his book and refused to acknowledge me until he’d finished it, and then he looked sort of bleary, like he couldn’t quite adjust to the reality of his mom standing in front of him. I couldn’t blame him. I’d felt the same way until I felt his little brother’s arms around me. The kids are so concrete that they made me feel less vague immediately. I vowed to be more patient with them, a vow I kept for maybe an hour before they did something infuriating and I did something infuriating back.
Andrew’s parents had taken the kids to a small amusement park earlier in the week and the kids had so much fun they decided we had to go back again that night. Grandparents! I blew my older son’s mind by agreeing to ride the paratrooper with him, which none of the other adults had consented to take him on before. It’s a centripetal force ride that starts off gently enough and then whips the rider around like mad, feet dangling, creating a potent mix of exhilaration and terror. I laughed while my son screamed. The ride is so wild there’s no time to think. I may not be whimsical but I am sometimes awfully fun. We got off and lurched around, trying to get our legs back under us.
I agreed to take both the boys on the ferris wheel, thinking it would be nothing after the paratrooper. But my four-year-old is a little slip of a thing who kept leaning forward to get a better view and the bar is nothing and the cars go screaming over the top before plunging downward. The cables were rusty and I knew the ride had recently been moved. There was altogether too much time to contemplate my children falling. I was on the verge of tears and gasped when we were finally safely on solid ground. Seconds later I was thinking about how different it felt to ride the ferris wheel with my kids than it had when I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. I can use that feeling in my book, I thought. I have to remember this.
Two days later, our family drove up to Maine for a week at the beach. Andrew and I talked about how I could fix my book. I talked about going back to part two, which ends abruptly and really isn’t long enough despite how overlong the book is. We talked about what I could do differently with my protagonist’s career, what might be more interesting. There’s no question that the smartest choice I’ve made while writing this book was breaking with my usual practice and sharing the process with him. In all likelihood I will cut the old part three and make a new one. 33,000 words kaput, but not really, because I’ve figured out the kind of ending I don’t want to write. That’s worth something. None of the decisions I’ve made about the book up until now are irrevocable. I can change the facts, the situation, and even the names. I can go back and back and back until I get it right. Or at least better.
On the way out of town we’d made a mad, 15-minute dash through the library. We wanted my older son to have plenty to read. He yanked My Brother Is a Superhero off the new arrivals shelf due to its completely irresistible title. I checked out many literary fiction books that might teach me something about endings and one giant blockbuster novel about a government virology experiment gone horribly awry and the ensuing post-apocalyptic future—the first in a trilogy. Guess which book I read? Hint: it didn’t have an ending. I loved it. I can’t wait to read the next one.
Photo credit: Andrew Malone