Starting afresh

Have you ever asked yourself why you do something?

I did something today that I've been putting off for quite some time: I restarted my novel. I've known for quite some time that something wasn't right, and that I was going to have to scrap what I'd done so far, but I didn't know why. About a month ago, it came to me. My error was not in the characterization or my choice of plot, but in how the story was being told.It was to my horror when I realized that I was stuck because I'd chosen the wrong point of view. It's intended to be a character study of one woman, and in my plunging into the writing, I thought it best that I write from her point of view.

I did it without thinking, and it didn't take me long to realize that something was wrong. The story needed to come from an impersonal, omniscient narrator—not the character herself, because although she thinks she understands her motives, she doesn't. (Not to mention that she certainly doesn't understand the motives of the people she surrounds herself with. Love them she does, but love and understanding are not the same.)

I don't understand what it is about this particular storyline that has grabbed me so. Every time I try to write, I find myself doubting my choice. It seems so … ordinary. So commonplace. Almost too simple: really only three characters, and how their pasts—and their perception of their pasts—have shaped their present life and will (or perhaps won't) shape their future. How they can't forgive themselves for wanting what they want, and how they unintentionally punish themselves for denying themselves (and, alternately, pursuing) what they really want out of life.

I kept myself from writing for so many years because I felt I had nothing new to contribute—after all, why write something if it's been written before? I've had a tendency to break down storytelling into mythical, descending triads of worth:

  • new stories told in new ways
  • new stories told in old ways—or old stories told in new ways
  • old stories told in old ways

I wanted the first one: a new story, a new way of telling it. As I realized that what I had was not a "new" story, but instead one that has been explored in many ways, I clung to the hopes that perhaps it would be told in a new, compelling fashion. Perhaps that would make me accept its worth and begin to write it.

Doubts have a way of insinuating themselves in your heart and lingering. Imagine what kind of doubt it would take to have a story, mostly formulated, in your head for nearly two years before even getting brave enough to try to sketch out a character study in a notebook. Not even coherent words—just notes.

Eventually I did start writing the character studies of the three people. They're in my house, rather deliberately scattered about, as if piling them together would create a critical mass that I wouldn't know how to deal with.

As a result, I find them all the damn time. Clean the guest bedroom, get reminded that J.'s grandmother was an immigrant, but I could never quite pin down where from. Tidy papers in the computer room and re-discover that, according to my notes, M. always resented being compared to the person she was named for.

So now it's been two years, and I'm back to nothing again. I deleted what I started before; I know now it's unsalvageable and needs to be thrown out. The storyline is still very valid, very workable, but I went about it all wrong. The germs of the idea, the storyline, are still in my head—they won't leave me.

Heaven knows I've tried to make them leave.

So what do I have at this point? Character studies. Names. A few sketched-out dates that I need to flesh out (the phrase "necessary evil" is an appropriate one). I need to work out family lines, and, in the end I need to accept that whether I like it or not, whether anyone ever reads it or not, this story is determined to be told.

Somewhere, buried in my character studies and scribbles and questions, is the truest, sanest quote that I think the character M. will ever say. She's trying to explain her motives, and why she seems to deliberately screw her life over every time she gets an ounce of free will. She looks at her friend and blurts out,

"I've always wanted to know why I do the things I do. I look at me in the mirror and I don't understand what I see, but I do know this: my eyes come back at me through the mirror, and I realize that I'm looking at the world with Jesus in my left eye and Judas in my right, and I think that maybe I'm not either. Maybe I'm both."

The working title: Judas' Right Eye.

all tags: