The crazy, word-hoarding pace of Nanowrimo does something to rewire the psychology of writing, and after churning out 50,000 words I didn’t really have time for because there wasn’t time to agonize over each one, I am getting a whiff of something I remember from a long time ago. I remember what it was like to write as a kid.
My first novel was a sprawling venture involving a parallel fairy universe/continent called “Toonvia.” A regular girl was falling asleep in her room (a small white bedroom with the cardboard rainbow from Spenser’s on the wall over the bookshelf) when a fairy came alive in a poster on the wall, and begged the girl to step through the poster into the other world. The fairy’s name, at least in early drafts, was a memorable hybrid I invented myself, and when I gave birth to my first child in 2002, my oldest friend was shocked to learn that her name was not Lilyamelody.
I wrote that novel like crazy, all the time. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere in fifth grade, and there was some kind of dire warning on the inside front cover written in all caps – something like “IF LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO THE FOLLOWING ADDRESS. IT’S A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.” My afore-mentioned friend told me then that this was a bit much, and for the first time I understood that being too earnest was not an asset. Even in elementary school.
Tragically, every single draft of that novel is now lost. I hope when I die I am offered a chance to view a movie of all the unremarked moments in life when things were lost – the exact moment when my mother accidentally put that notebook into the trash, or when I ripped out the pages and put them in a folder which was never seen again. There are plenty of moments like that to review – what happened to the pair of opals someone gave my dad and I used to keep in my jewelry box? Where did the burglar who stole my rings in graduate school put them? What was I doing when my necklace of jet beads fell off and was lost? And where is it now?
I have only the soft-focus memory of the pages in my first novel notebook to remember what was in it. I know there was a war going on in Toonvia between the good fairy folk and a host of witches and monsters who lived on the other side of the continent. The human girl (and what was her name? Probably Melanie.) was welcomed into fairyland with a full makeover and a feast, a la The Wizard of Oz. I remember that scene well because when I gave it to a girl to read at summer camp, she ended up only reading one side of each page in my double-sided manuscript. I figured out the mistake when she became very upset that there was a father pixie being served up at the welcome feast, but when I pointed out what she had done, she declined to go back and re-read the whole thing. Imagine!
I wrote and re-wrote that novel all the way through junior high. It evolved into a conventional fantasy adventure novel inspired by Anne McCaffrey (who has recently died, I was sad to learn). There was some kind of stone that had to be obtained. There were two kids sent on a quest. The boy could make things appear by magic when he played his flute. I wrote all summer in little coded notebooks and on my mother’s typewriter. I wrote while we were up in Pulaski, declining to go down to the river to swim so I could get some work in on my character sketches and chapter outlines. I made maps and kept lists of names. I also had separate sections in my notebook for other pursuits, like the “Philosophy” section in which I was building a taxonomy of every possible kind of conflict known to humanity. Don’t ask me! Those synapses have long since been pruned.
At some point the novel fizzled out, and what I remember was that I became more interested in physical descriptions of the winsome hero with dark curly hair than I was in plotting – he was a dreamboat, and (wouldn’t you know it) he exactly resembled the teenage TV star I was in love with at the time. So out went the era of literary intensity and in came that other era, the one in which Ophelia needs to be revived.
For fifteen years I wrote hardly any fiction. I signed up for poetry in college, thinking that I only had a prayer of finishing something if it was short. Poems are exquisitely short. I could write and rewrite them ten times in an afternoon and still have time for a two-foot high stack of Russian homework.
Academia is a pretty good party killer when it comes to unbridled creativity. My critical faculties increased to the point that I knew it was embarrassing to write. Still, I never quite made it to the other camp. During my last gasp of graduate school, at a conference on Russian women writers I organized, I gave a paper on the poet Karolina Pavlova. Afterward, a kind professor from another campus said, “You know, that was a writer’s paper, not an academic’s paper.” Secretly, I took it as a compliment.
It takes an exercise like Nanowrimo to force the imagination back into the mindset of writing like a kid – writing all the time, every minute, wool gathering, making leaps, forging ahead constantly. I didn’t waste time doing laundry and dishes when I was a kid, either. In January I can begin the process of agonizing over the fifty thousand new words, one at a time. Meanwhile I am going to devise a process of hypnotizing myself so that when I sit down to write, mentally, I’m ten.