I’ve been spending the week getting up at 5 am and, because my brain is wrecked by my day job this week for anything creative, storyboarding rather than actually writing. I’ll take my notes and do the actual writing when I can let my brain expand, this long weekend and during the week-long writing retreat I have booked for February and so on. I’ve never done a writing retreat before (I have always meant to, especially Tatamagouche or Sewanee, but have never had both the time and the money before) so I’ll have to see how it goes but I am trying to be prepared so I can make the most of it.
On Tuesday, I read a very good essay about writing novels by Suzanne Berne (hat-tip to metafilter) and have been thinking about it all week.
So for God’s sake, why do it? Why spend years writing a novel, especially if you have no idea of what will become of it?
One answer is that this lengthy, ambiguous, ungainly period, if you can stand it, allows for something rare these days: the suspension of judgment. Room for indecision. Even for disorientation. . . the kind that makes you suspect it may take a while to understand what is right in front of you.
. . . As you go forward in a novel, your perceptions keep changing about characters and situations that in the beginning you probably thought you understood—because the characters probably began more or less as types, and their situations probably seemed more or less familiar. Yet as the characters become more complicated, their situations are also defamiliarized, and you can no longer predict how you will feel about them.“Suzanne Berne Asks Us, Why Write a Novel, Why Read a Novel, and Why Now?“
I’ve been thinking about this whole essay, and especially this excerpt, a lot. The novel I am writing right now, and have been writing since 2019, follows women of a certain age fighting fascism, but it isn’t about that, or, it’s only glancingly about that. It’s really about grief, and what it means to be alive, and why we should build communities, and why we have to love one another. It’s about being human. Maybe all art is.
Terry Pratchett has a bit in Wings (from The Bromeliad Trilogy, which is his best work) about how passing pleasantries like “how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” and so on is really saying, “I am alive and so are you” over and over, just noises we make as mammals who are happy to encounter another mammal. I think novels are kind of the ultimate in “I am alive and so are you” and I want readers to come away from my writing feeling something like you do after having a really excellent conversation.