As Edan Lepucki pointed out, writers are a self-flagellating bunch: difficult to satisfy, prone to swinging wildly between absurd faith and intense self-criticism. (Or is that just me?) So you can hardly blame us for wanting to hold tight to our darlings -- the favored image, the pet sentence -- when we finally get them on paper. And yet, and yet -- writers from Anton Chekov to Stephen King agree that one’s most precious writing often has to be cut, either because of the fact of its preciousness or because it doesn’t serve the larger work. Having killed more than a few darlings myself—including an entire novel—I asked five contemporary writers about the most painful time they cut a piece of writing. The truth is that the kill-your-darlings phenomenon is a little bit like a lust-driven love affair: no matter how painful it is to say goodbye, I’ve heard few people say that it wasn’t the right choice, or even that they truly miss their darling once it’s gone. But I keep a graveyard document on my computer just in case. You never know when a dead darling will be called upon and brought to life again. 1. Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts I’ve had to kill plenty of darlings over the years, but though the deletions may come with fleeting twinges of pain, I’ve mostly taken pleasure in making my work leaner. This is what professional writers do, after all: they edit, they revise, they trim. Once, though, I had to cut a simile from a story I was working on, and the fact that I still remember those four little excised words -- my despondent protagonist described herself as “negligible as an eyelash” -- reveals how much it hurt to give them up. But before I’d finished my own story, I read a newly published story by a writer I admired, and there in one of her perfect paragraphs was my simile, word for word. She’d not only come up with the same exact metaphor, she’d come up with and published it first. I tried to convince myself we could both use the simile. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen it from this other writer, not even subconsciously. And the chances that anyone in the world (where literary short fiction is not exactly giving Harry Potter a run for his money) would read both our stories, much less read them in such temporal proximity and so darned carefully they’d notice we used the same simile was...well, as negligible as an eyelash. In the end, though, I knew I’d lost the race, and I did the right thing, erasing the four words from my story. I have been churlish and bitter about it ever since. 2. Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night The first draft of my novel went heavy on Norse mythology. Even though my male protagonist Yasha was a 17-year-old Russian boy, I thought of him as a version of Thor. I wanted Yasha's father, Vassily, to resemble Thor's father, Odin, the All-Father of the Norse universe who famously rides an eight-legged horse and walks around with a raven on each shoulder. I hoped to connect the fabulous, exotic heroes of those myths to my humble, bewildered characters. But I wound up with a total mess. I had hammers and horses all over the place and I couldn't say why. It started to feel like scaffolding, or a gimmick, that my book needed to shed. In my second draft, I let Yasha be Yasha and cut back on the Thor. But I strengthened Yasha with Thor's sensibility: I kept that mightiness, that inspiration in mind as I steered Yasha through his dilemmas and into moments of bravery. And happily, the Norse gods did make it into one climactic scene: a midnight funeral at a Viking museum. 3. Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines When it came time for me to revise my novel, I killed all the darlings in Part II, 150 pages worth. Instead of reckoning with my characters' loss and the aftermath of an intense family trip, I had flashed forward a decade, absolving myself of the inner work that was necessary for telling this story. My editor saw the heart of Bright Lines: a triad of POVs that connects the experience of two daughters, one adopted, one biological, and a father confronting his weakness. I cut some of the more dramatic turns in the novel -- characters killed, lecherous uncles, good-for-nothing dads -- these were shorn. The rough-hewn forms of these ideas took shape, and what resulted was a process of fine-tuning, excavating, and exploring my characters' inner desires in the span of one year. During this time, I was in acting classes, too. I suppose this was a respite from writing as well as a way to strengthen my storytelling. In class, we'd ask: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And as I finishing revising my novel, the choice to kill my darlings led me to write a fully-realized story that looks to a historical past, with an unspoken destination that comes decades later. 4. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar For me, the hardest darling to kill was in my first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar. In it, one of the characters is hit over the head with a gnome statue, enters a coma, and upon awakening is obsessed with the genocide of the American Indian. In the original version of the book, there was an entire 40-page section that followed that character into her coma where she went on a kind of guided vision quest regarding the nature of cruelty. It was supposed to be both a historical recap of the less clean parts of American history, as well as a meditation on those wrongs we commit that cannot be taken back or set right, even as there is a moral imperative to at least try. My agent insisted it must be cut, I argued it could be trimmed, but in the end, I agreed with her and cut the whole thing. Still, it completed the book thematically and symbolically in a way that was painful to lose. Don’t even talk to my husband about it. “It was a tragedy!” he shouts whenever it comes up. “That was the best part of the book!” And even though it wasn’t the best part of the book, I love him dearly for saying so. 5. Marian Palaia, author of The Given World When I was first asked if I might write a short piece on having had, at some point, to jettison a favorite character (to kill off one of my darlings, in the parlance), I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, but figured I could come up with something. Then I sent an early draft of my new novel to my agent. Ha! The joke is on me. The universe aligns, and it is looking as though I am needing to cut, from a so-far 175-page manuscript, about 1/3, in the form of Cam. He is not only a main character, but “Cam” is the first word in the book; he is the first person we meet, aside from the narrator, who introduces him to us. The reason he needs to go, or to at least not be a main character anymore, is because he is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- one tragic figure too many, in a book already full (enough) of tragic figures. And he is Haitian, meaning he has an accent, and he suffers from PTSD and (probably) Gulf War Syndrome (from our first adventure there), and then there is the matter of the earthquake occurring in the course of the book’s time frame, and the fact that he is Haitian in Missoula, Mont., and, well, maybe you can see where this thing could go completely off the rails and he could become somewhat cartoonish, which would just add more tragedy to the whole affair. The thing is, I knew he was risky when I first began to write him, but there he was, and he was pretty insistent on being there, shy guy that he is, and he is a real person, in an alternate sphere, and his story is so compelling it won’t leave me, but it is for another time, I think. For another place. Or maybe it is his story alone -- compelling in the way real life can be, and not transferable to fiction -- and I have no business sharing it. We’ll see. And I will miss him. Unless he moves to San Francisco and meets up with my protagonist there, and is not such a fish out of water, but there will still be the same issues, so we will just have to see. Meantime, I am going in. And changing the first word of my book. I will find out what sort of cascading effect that has. I have just arrived in Montana, the place I seem to want every morning to get up and write, and have all summer, unless we catch on fire, to finish this draft. Better get started. Image Credit: Flickr/Maarten Van Damme.
Writing the final pages of a novel is difficult enough, but then comes the final challenge. It’s the end of the end, the last stop on the line, the dazzling dismount: a damn good closing sentence. I finished my novel while sitting in a movie theater, watching a documentary on light pollution. I’m not sure what it was about The City Dark that helped me get there. Maybe it was the documentary’s eerie central question -- Is darkness becoming extinct? -- or perhaps it was the church-like quiet of the theater. Maybe it was that, in my utter absorption, I’d for once stopped thinking about the novel. Whatever it was sent me scrambling for a pen and a receipt and then, when I couldn’t find either, repeating one line in my head like a mantra: I knew there was nobody watching me. I wasn’t sure that it was elegant, or even grammatically sound, but I did know it was just how my narrator -- who spends the novel negotiating issues of privacy and voyeurism -- would want the book to end. Grammatical or not, it was my last line, and I was sticking to it. Read on to see how six authors found theirs. 1. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar For my debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, I had no idea what the last lines would be and finding the ending was kind of like fencing by yourself in a giant gymnasium in the dark. I just kept writing and writing. Where was it? It had to be around there somewhere. There couldn’t NOT be an ending. I parried and thrusted and eventually I found an opponent in the darkness and somehow the damn thing got written, but it was not graceful. It was an awkward and sweaty process. Clearly there had to be a better way. John Irving, of whom I am an ardent and really inappropriately effusive fan, claims to start with his last scene first and then write the whole novel toward it. How elegant, I thought. What a beautiful way to work. So that is what I attempted with my second novel, which Knopf recently bought and which will come out, you know, eventually. So I wrote the final scene of the book first, and then I started at the beginning and I wrote toward it. This is not as easy as it seems! The book, like a sewing machine going too fast, kept veering off in unexpected directions, taking huge looping digressions. And yet, what was there to do but follow where the characters led me? When I write, I tend to write a lot and then discard a lot, and so I patiently followed my characters and eventually, low and behold, they wound up right where I had started, at the ending I had chosen for them in the beginning. I added one extra scene-let, more of a coda really, and then that was it, but mainly because it felt somehow incorrect to end a novel on an airplane. You have to land, right? You just have to. So I let them land, and then that was it: the trip was over. In the end, I am not sure one strategy is actually more effective than the other, and both cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. In the first case, you are terrified there is no ending and your characters will just continue on like Schrödinger’s cat, half alive and half dead, with nothing at all resolved. But in the second case, you doubt constantly that the ending you initially chose was the right one. What if you are forcing your characters into actions and behaviors that no longer make sense for them? What if their destiny is no longer their destiny and you are just like a bad matchmaker trying to force through an arranged marriage out of pride? So far as I can tell, there is no best option, and in fact part of how you know you have finished a novel and that the ending you have found is the ending you were meant to find, is that the entire process is awkward and sweaty and appalling and at the end of it you vow never to do it that way again. 2. Meg Wolitzer, author of Belzhar My character's name is Jam, and she's been sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, because she cannot get over the tragic loss of her boyfriend. It's revealed early on that this boy once gave Jam a jar of his favorite kind of jam. Throughout the book, she says she will never open the jar; doing so would be letting go of her love for this boy and everything they had together. I will get to the last line, but to give it context I first have to mention what comes right before it. The very end of the book reads: ‘This stuff is supposed to be pretty good,’ I say, and then, trying to look casual, I grasp the lid of the jar and give it a turn. It makes a surprisingly sharp pop, as if it were releasing not just air, but something else that’s been dying to get out for a long time. Then I sit cross-legged on my bed, leaning against the study buddy, facing DJ, and with a slightly bent knife stolen from the dining hall, I spread some of the dark red jam on a couple of crackers—one for her, and one for me. When I put mine in my mouth, the sweet taste startles me. I let it linger. I let it linger. I was excited to write that very last line; it felt right, coming after the description of opening the jar, which is a big deal for the narrator. The last line serves as a kind of coda, a way to hold on to what's just happened -- to give not only Jam a chance to see that her action matters, but that its effect will have some staying power. This, of course, is what all writers want their readers to experience; we hope that, somehow –– at least for a little while –– the words will linger. 3. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I struggled a lot with the final chapter of Nathaniel P., last line included. I worried about being too heavy-handed, inflecting the ending with too much of my own point-of-view. Although I definitely favor a certain reading, I tried to refrain from any overt signaling of what I think because I wanted to remain true to the book’s character, Nathaniel. The last line reads: He’d no more remember the pain -- or the pleasure -- of this moment than he would remember, once he moved into the new apartment, the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at down, after he’d been up all night working. I wanted the line to be ambiguous in its meaning, to convey a feeling that is acute and earnest but can nonetheless be interpreted as the fleeting nostalgia of the moment -- something that can be forgotten without consequence -- or something more important, the kind of deeper truth that can be inconvenient and unsettling and which we might prefer to bury under the chaos of day-to-day life. I think such ambiguousness is true to life: as we go through our lives, we rarely know how to read what we feel, how much weight to put on this or that passing mood. I wanted the novel’s presentation of psychological and moral life to be as complicated and prone to shape-shifting as our actual private lives. The line also contains a nod to another book, but this is so subtle -- practically imaginary -- that it’s for myself rather than because I expect anyone else to see it. For me, the reference to the smell of morning from a window recollects a scene in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The charming, handsome Arthur Donnithorne has spent the night worrying about a romance he started in spite of his better judgment; he resolves to end the relationship before it goes too far. But when he wakes up the following morning, to a lovely day, and breathes in the fresh morning air from his window, his late-night anxiety seems overwrought. He puts aside as melodramatic the resolutions he made. In the course of the novel, it turns out he was right to be worried; it was the cheerfulness and bustle of day that was misleading. I think this scene is incredibly perceptive about how people, myself included, actually behave, and I liked the idea of calling back to it, ever so subtly. 4. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits I wrote many, many drafts of this novel and each had a different ending, and a different final sentence. Some were mean and cutting, some were attempts at hopefulness, some were vague in a way I hoped a reader would make sense of (since I certainly couldn’t), and all of them were overthought. I was trying so desperately to control the readers’ experience of that final moment that I forgot about the characters and the story. Somehow, with final lines, it’s so often impossible to separate from them my own feelings about the work as a whole, so that I find myself trying to cram as much meaning as possible into a single sentence, trying, I suppose, to redeem the project from all the ways it has fallen short of what I’d hoped it would be. So how did I find a final sentence I was satisfied with? The short answer is that I ran out of time. We were supposed to leave on our honeymoon the following day. It was summertime, August, and we were visiting my parents in northern New York. Everyone in my family was outside in the sunshine and I could hear them through the open windows laughing and chatting, occasionally someone diving into the pool, and everything inside me wanted to be out there with them. But the novel was a year overdue, and somehow I couldn't bring myself to leave on this trip knowing that the cloud of this book -- and all its subsequent distractions -- would follow us onto our honeymoon. So I sat at the desk in that bedroom writing and rewriting the final paragraph by hand. I wrote it and scratched it out and rewrote it, added arrows and clauses, read it aloud to myself again and again, trying to listen for the right feeling. Finally, as the afternoon sun began to change, I knew everyone would soon be headed back inside, so I said to hell with it. I typed it into the manuscript and emailed it to my editor. Then I went outside, announced that I had finished, and went swimming. 5. Michelle Huneven, author of Off Course, Blame, Jamesland and Round Rock In three of my four novels, I knew well before I was halfway done what the last line was going to be. In fact, I wrote to those last lines. I had to see my way clear to them. They pulled me through. In my fourth novel, Off Course, I didn’t know the last line and I overwrote the ending by 20 or 30 pages. (Sometimes a book just ends, no matter how hard you try to tack on something else). Only after cutting those pages and packing what I could use from them into the preceding chapters did I locate my last line in a serviceable, finalizing bit of exposition. Who knew? My favorite last line comes from my second novel, Jamesland. Jamesland begins with 30-something Alice Black waking up in the middle of the night to find that a deer has come into her house. She chases it out and goes back to bed, but in the morning, she can’t tell if the deer was a dream or a fact. Either way, she’s sufficiently disturbed to discuss the event with various people, including a minister who suggests that Alice look into what deer might mean to her. In her own inadvertent way, Alice does look into this. She learns, for example, that in Buddhism, the deer is a symbol for listening; in Persian carpets, the deer is a symbol of worldly cravings; in the Psalms, the deer thirsts for water like the soul thirsts for God, etc. You might say that deer become a vehicle for meaning in Alice’s life. Although she never pins down what, specifically, deer “mean to her,” her whole life changes as she pursues the question. One thing that happens is, she takes up with Pete, a chef who, at the end of the novel, has just opened a new restaurant. On a cool, winters day before the dinner shift starts, he’s walking up through Griffith Park to meet Alice, and he sees a deer leaping over bushes on the hillside. Now, whenever I’ve come across deer in the wild, I am always awed; I think they’re beautiful, graceful, wildness incarnate. But some people see something else. Pete, watching the deer, pats his pockets for a pen or pencil to jot down a note. But he hasn’t got a pencil. So here is the book’s last line: “He’d just have to remember, then, to put venison on the menu.” 6. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas I’m not one to approach the craft of writing with any sort of metaphysical bent. Those who speak of themselves as detached vessels through which prose flows can find me in the corner, rolling my damn eyes. However, there are a few aspects of the writing process I regard with a reverent wonder approaching the realm of soothsaying. None more so than last lines. I write the following with the typing equivalent of a straight face: before I know who the characters are, before I even know what the story is about, I hear its title and last line. I hear the last line, and then I write toward it. Not all the time, but usually. This doesn’t mean I’m trapped. Knowing the airy location at which the story terminates does not mean I have any idea where the story will take me, or who I might invent as I journey. I don’t even know what the last line will mean to the characters. If an X marks the spot of where the story ends, the map still has no lines or countries, and the X could be a trap door leading to another dimension. It’s really that simple. Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow. I vacillated between two possible last lines for my novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. The difference between the two was the decision of who I wanted to end the story on -- the young jazz singing protagonist, who we’ve struggled with for 280 pages, or a heretofore minor character. The former would leave the reader in an enclosed space, the room in which the little girl is rehearsing. The latter would end in an expansive place, literally and figuratively, leaving the door open for (what turned out to be) spirited interpretation. It would be impossible for me to convey the importance of the last line without you reading the novel, but I can say this: I knew the last word would be “tomorrow.” For a novel that takes place over the course of one day, that for the most part eschews flashbacks in order to keep all momentum pointed forward, it was important that the last word acknowledged the idea of a next day. First lines are a challenge for me. They feel like work. If you want to know how to write a first line, I’d ask Kevin Wilson or Amy Hempel or Charles Baxter. If first lines belong to the story and its launch, last lines belong to the story’s effect. The last line launches the reader into what he or she will end up thinking about the story. Maybe that’s why they must feel delivered, and my job is to keep myself open in the way most conducive to hear them. I know, I know. Roll your eyes. I don’t blame you one bit. I’d most likely never admit any of this had I never heard Amy Hempel say at a reading that she normally hears her last lines first, too. That, along with so many other things she has said about writing, validated the most internal of internal inclinations I’ve grown up feeling about the craft. So if this all sounds like hooey to you, please take it up with her. See Also: The Art of the Final Sentence Image Credit: Geograph.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish -- for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.” In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro -- whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child -- find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas: I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits: When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare -- King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren't there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn't then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn't overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was "the land of steady habits." And that was that. Ramona Ausubel, author of A Guide to Being Born and No One Is Here Except All of Us: Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason. Said Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy and When Skateboards Will Be Free: I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I'll leave that up to each reader to decide. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves: I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact -- and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best -- when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences -- the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well. The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.
Freud famously said “the madman is the dreamer awake”: better, we think, to let him lie. Like Mr. Rochester’s woman upstairs, we quarantine the dreaming mind in time and deny its existence by day. But what if it were true that night and day were not separate, and that our fictions were considered to be as serious, as vital, as what we do while awake? I've always had strange dreams, but when I entered my mid-twenties, they became much stranger. By day, my life was unremarkable: I was a graduate student in a college town, then an adjunct instructor of writing and an administrative assistant at a non-profit; I lived in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood with my fiancé, a fellow graduate student, and went to bed by 10:30. At night, though, things were far more exciting. I underwent terrifying medical experiments while strapped to a hospital bed. I bought a pet porcupine named Sweetie and dressed her in a fur coat, so that I could pet her, feeding her yogurt from a spoon. I gave birth to tacos and teddybears and human children, always boys, one of which came out fused to my hands. I joined the French Resistance and witnessed an alternate ending to World War Two in which Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime mistress, detonated the wrong bomb, killing Hitler instead of us. When I started my novel, no one who knew me was surprised to hear that it explores dreams and the human subconscious. I’m certainly not the first writer to lead a real life less dramatic than the one in my imagination—or, perhaps, to wonder about the worth of fiction in the face of reality. Emily Dickinson—dubbed “the Queen Recluse” by her good friend Samuel Bowles—spent most of her life at home, watching with frustration as the men of her family pursued careers in politics and public service. Jane Austen wrote love stories that resonate centuries after her death, despite the fact that she likely did not experience a romantic relationship herself. Charlotte Bronte had so powerful an imagination that she referred to her characters as her “inmates.” Marcel Proust worked from a Paris apartment soundproofed with cork and curtained from the sun. While writing In Search of Lost Time, Proust was lost in time himself: he slept during the day and worked at night. Once, he walked to the Louvre, realizing only when he arrived that it was midnight and the museum was closed. For other writers, sleep offers a wellspring of creativity. Dreams have played a key role in some of literature’s greatest works of fiction: Frankenstein was conceived in a dream by Mary Shelley, as was E.B. White’s Stuart Little. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt about a doctor with split personality disorder so vividly that he wrote a novel about this character—later titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—in an astonishing three days. In her book Writers Dreaming, Naomi Epel interviewed a collection of writers, including Stephen King and Maya Angelou. King, a famous proponent of the creative power generated via sleep, said creativity and dreams are “just so similar that they’ve got to be related. Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake.” Angelou agreed: “I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery.” It’s this tension—the potential functionality of dreams versus their ultimate mystery—that makes our relationship to the sleeping mind so fraught. While non-REM sleep has been tied to an array of critical subconscious processes, from emotional regulation to restoration and homeostasis, the function of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs, remains controversial. Some researchers believe it plays a role in learning and memory processing. Others think that dreams rid the brain of unwanted thoughts that could otherwise lead to obsession or paranoia. Michel Jouvet, a leading dream researcher from the University of Lyon, believes dreams give us the opportunity to rehearse our responses to frightening situations ahead of time, preparing us for their occurrence in waking life. But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary. Business is now the most popular college major in the United States. Since 2009, funding for humanities and liberal arts programs—called “nonstrategic disciplines” by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—has decreased across the nation. It’s not all dire: the National Endowment for the Arts recently avoided a 49% budget cut, and Michelle Obama’s campaign on behalf of arts education has brought attention to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the two-year-old Humanities Turnaround Arts program. Still, cultural funding has been in global decline since 2009: Australia and Britain, as well as a range of European governments, have instituted major cuts; Portugal closed its Ministry of Culture after legislative elections in 2011. Though I’m strongly in favor of arts funding, I still feel a near-constant sense of doubt about the worth of my work. I wonder whether my contributions could ever be equal to that of a doctor, a social worker, a soldier. As the earth’s climate warms and its resources thin, indulgence—both material and psychological—feels increasingly unsustainable. Even sleep has become a luxury, commodified for its relationship to performance. But the profits of dreaming remain unclear; in schools, excessive daydreaming—dreaming’s voluntary counterpart, commonly dismissed as “spacing out” or frivolous wishful thinking—has even been named a disorder. Certainly, daydreaming has its drawbacks. As a child, a teenager and even a college student, I could spend hours imagining scenes so detailed that I was oblivious to everything around me until I came to, minutes or hours later, in a classroom whose lessons I hadn’t learned. But daydreaming, like a self-built raft, has also carried me through years of fear and loneliness. Those moments were self-building, too, opportunities to experiment with experience and personality—and ultimately, to develop the character who will accompany me throughout my life: me. Like fiction, daydreaming allows me to imagine my way into a life that isn’t mine, and in the process, it offers emotional sustenance. And though it might not be real life, fiction can feel like it. In fact, a 2006 scientific study found that reading fiction activates the brain in a way that is very similar to actual, lived experience: reading vivid metaphors arouses the sensory cortex, and action-oriented sentences do the same for the motor cortex. But the fact remains: no matter how many studies link fiction to empathy or dreaming to memory consolidation, we still don’t know conclusively what fiction or dreaming do for us, and perhaps we never will. It’s the most painful thorn in our side, this not-knowing, the eternal bane of human existence: we like to marvel at mystery, but we also like to contain it. Perhaps our limited tolerance for mystery has made us similarly resistant to the same in-between qualities in ourselves: irrationality, indecision, eccentricity. Yet peculiarity is as inherent to the human animal as muscle or bone. The mind is a beast in itself: like the body, it needs time and space to roam. In cordoning it off, we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the miraculous absurdity of life itself. We forget how to wonder, to drift. We forget that most questions in this world—the ones that really matter—are impossible to answer completely. Readers of fiction are notoriously divided on open-ended conclusions. But are there any other kinds? In fiction, as in dreams, we muck around in the innards of things. We play and pretend. I get the same feeling, reading a novel or a short story, that I do when I look up at the stars: I am silenced, awed by the unknowable. Is sleep villain or hero, enabler or hindrance, site of action or useless intermission? If we knew, we might know a great many other things, too, and then there would be little reason to write fiction at all. Image via ramsd/Flickr
“For every book I publish,” a writing teacher once told me, “there’s one book I don’t.” At the age of eighteen, armed with a truly bad novel and a rather absurd sense of optimism, this line did not exactly resonate. But as I amassed rejection slips of every size—and once my first novel was rejected by a pantheon of New York publishers—I realized that nearly every writer has a novel in a drawer: a manuscript that, due to any number of reasons (rejection, timing, chance, diversion) never quite becomes a fully-formed book. By the time an author’s debut hits bookstores, it’s very likely been preceded by a string of books that weren’t: doomed half-novels; slivers of inspiration that curled up and went to sleep; baggy short stories that grew into novellas, then stubbornly refused to grow any more. Some become first drafts, but never find the right agent; others find an agent, but not a publisher. In general, Novels in Drawers are an unruly breed, prone to shape-shifting and border-crossing. Some NIDs lie prone for years before being resurrected and, miraculously, finished; others have their characters or ideas recruited to breathe new life into a different manuscript. What are we to do to with our books that weren’t? How can we learn from them, and when should we let them go? Below, five fiction writers on the story they still haven’t been able to tell. Kiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America When I was in grad school, I wrote this five hundred-page novel about a round runaway character. I was sure that book was going to change the world. When I finally published Long Division, a book kinda-sorta about a round runaway character, it had literally three paragraphs from that five hundred-page novel that I knew was going to change the world. I needed to write every word of that novel but in the end, only a few paragraphs of it needed to be seen. The sad thing is that some people told me that way back then. I didn't really listen. Laura van den Berg, The Isle of Youth Six or seven years ago, I drafted a story called “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” and turned it in for workshop. Amid the usual critiques, much of it helpful, were comments about how the story seemed “novelistic” and like it was “part of something larger.” Which, in hindsight, was a gentle way of saying it was way too fucking long and I had made some truly confounding choices in structure. But I did not have that hindsight back then, so I started thinking maybe this story could be “part of something larger,” that I should write past the end and see what happened. I made it about fifty pages before I realized I was on the verge of Death by Boredom. Though the story itself I would grow to love, I knew then that it was not “part of something larger,” but a shaggy dog of a short story searching for its final shape. I was reminded that the story is a very particular and singular kind of art—not a warm-up for the novel. When I began Find Me, my first novel, due out next year, it was never anything but a novel. For years my draft was messy and misguided and floundering, but at least I was always certain of one thing: I was not writing a short story. Karen Brown, The Longings of Wayward Girls I hate to give up. If I start a novel, I finish it, which is why I have stacks of three-hundred-page manuscripts, all purporting to be books, all maintained in dark storage, queued up like records in an old jukebox awaiting their turn to play. Sadly for them, I’ve learned that a book isn’t finished simply because it’s finished, that it enters a stage of being we call a draft—a term I’m now quite familiar with—and that this has the potential to multiply, to become draft six, possibly draft seven. These abandoned novels might always be first drafts, but even in their rough, elemental state their characters still enact their complicated lives in various towns and houses, in relationships with various others. In them it is winter, it is an island in the Caribbean, it is a night club in South Florida in the 1980s. I am aware of their presence—miniature worlds in stasis, pending transformation into draft five and draft six—but I’m also cowed by the work required to get them there. It takes a certain bravery to dive back in, especially if you are the kind of person who hates to give up. Since I now have a better concept of what "finished" entails I suspect the decision to revisit an old draft will depend on my sensibilities when I reread it—usually after years have passed. Maybe I hadn't intended a certain relationship to carry much weight, but suddenly this relationship interests me, and I begin to imagine the story differently. I just finished a novel that involved several drafts (seven? eight?). I wrote it after a series of short stories set in a cold, bleak, upstate New York winter, and the focus had always been a love affair. Now, the story is about the relationship between two sisters—something I hadn't even explored before—and this shift in focus has created an entirely new book. Michelle Wildgen, Bread and Butter Food shows up in almost everything I write. Aside from the way the culinary world pleases me aesthetically, food is one of those universals that can be employed to explore almost anything, from family to religion to class to love. So why has a nonfiction book about my favorite subject eluded me? I have drawn up notes, gathered my essays and looked for their common threads, and examined my upbringing top to bottom, but I have yet to figure out the personal story my food life might tell or to find the external food story I feel compelled to dive into. It's tempting to blame my too-normal Midwestern upbringing (shouldn't someone have been curing a pig leg in the garage, maybe, or serving meals so spectacularly terrible that I could be perversely proud of them? But no one was, and my mom is in fact an excellent cook). But the truth is, my favorite pieces of writing about food are not about extreme cooking. Laurie Colwin wrote beautifully, hilariously, and movingly about everyday, English-inflected nursery food, and MFK Fisher's most luminous and insightful essays are about the relationships among the diners more than the amazing dishes before them. I haven't pinned it down yet, and maybe I never will, but even now that elusive food book seems so, so close—I just can't quite see its shape. Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles For a few years when I was in grad school, I kept coming back to a short story I’d tried to write about a modern day woman who starts wearing a homemade hair shirt like the ones people wore as penance in the Middle Ages: itchy, painful, and flea-infested. But I could never get the tone right. It kept coming off as more funny than dark, more ridiculous than bleak—and I wanted it bleak. It was liberating to give up on that story so that I could focus on others, and it helped me realize that throwing out a piece of writing can sometimes count as progress. It feels like backtracking, but it can ultimately be the way forward. Image via Dan4th Nicholas/Flickr