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Love and Novels: after the break up
When the love of your life is deeply entwined in your novel
I began my half-written, completely-neglected novel as a love letter to the man, another aspiring writer, who wrote at the barstool next to me on Saturdays and on Sundays. By the time I’d gotten to the endless plain, the middle, he’d trampled my heart like one-thousand wild horses, made it a more tender tartare than any we ever ordered to have with the glasses of bubbles I drank while I wrote at his elbow. I don’t know how to continue writing my love letter now, 30,000 words in. I don’t know how to write about love or life without cliche or hyperbole, feeling this way. I don’t know how I’ll ever get back to writing from a place so open, so true, so deep, the way I did when I loved with the innocence Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of only finding, finally, when she met Robert, in Sonnet 43. Can you help me?
My reply is for you, but first I’m going to talk about me.
Many years ago, when I found my way back to writing, I did so with the support of a friend, another creative person, and in the process of talking about our work, and encouraging each other and sharing our creative selves, we fell in love.
To summarize the joy and devastation of it all, it did not work out. The story of that is something for another day, and must be accompanied by something stronger than bubbles, except that I am middle-aged now, and drinking anything means risking not sleeping, and so the rest of this story will remain untold, because I value my sleep too much.
But in the aftermath of it all, I was left with two things. A novel I had written within the container of NaNoWriMo, doing my daily words often by his side and talking about the entire process with him, and a shared project between the two of us, for which my half was done. And I had to answer the question, what do I do with all this? Where do I go from here?
The sharing of our creative selves, our work, our dreams, our nascent half-formed ideas, is deeply vulnerable, and even more so when we are in that stage where we can’t quite own the idea of actually being a writer and so must qualify the description with the adjective ‘aspiring’. It reveals something of our deepest selves, it requires great trust and intimacy.
It is no wonder that you shared all of this with the love of your life. Who else would we trust with our most vulnerable selves?
But I think sometimes when we are in the place where we do not yet fully trust ourselves as writers, and we become creatively intimate with someone else, it is easy to let our own voice get mixed up with another’s.
It is hard, as a colleague of mine put it, to trust that quiet voice in the corner, the one that doesn’t like to speak up when all the other voices of logic and practicality and our socialized beliefs about ourselves and what we ought to be doing are loudly dominating the space in our brain. We are not used to listening to that quiet voice. Perhaps this is why she shies away when there is too much attention put on her.
And when another person comes in and recognizes that voice, and sees her hiding away in the corner, and very gently engages her in a conversation…. well, the quiet voice in the corner is deeply relieved. Someone is listening. Someone with a voice loud enough to cut through all the other ones.
And so the quiet voice gets to do two things she wasn’t able to do very well before. She gets to be heard. But she also gets to avoid having to speak up. I mean, why try, when there are all these loud voices and you have this other person you can whisper to who will speak up instead? How wonderful to have this buffer around the discomfort.
But the trouble with letting someone else do the speaking for you, is that sometimes it can become a game of broken telephone. Not always. But occasionally. Something gets a little lost in transmission. Or else, the quiet voice starts talking about things that this other person with the louder voice gets excited over. After all, they’re the one listening most attentively. So the delicious thrill of playing to the audience, so to speak, and getting more listening and more excitement and more validation….. well, that’s hard to resist, particularly for a quiet voice who waited for so long to be heard.
For me, that was the case with our shared project. I wrote it, my voice and ideas were in there, some of which I still think are pretty great. But while it wasn’t all him, it also wasn’t all me. It wasn’t a world that the quiet voice wanted to inhabit. The quiet voice had contributed, but it was a project driven by other voices, and in the aftermath of it all, I didn’t know what to do with it. The project was something I’d put care and creativity into, but not one I had the skills to complete. And after some time, the quiet voice and I sat down and had a chat. I could have hired someone else to create his part of it under my direction, but ultimately, the quiet voice and I made a decision to permanently shelve the project. There wasn’t enough of me in there to make it worthwhile to pursue.
You, Unglued, are in the aftermath. The quiet voice has gone through a period of being able to luxuriate in being listened to without having practiced how to make herself heard. It is no wonder she doesn’t know where to go from here.
And this is now your challenge. How to make the quiet voice heard amid the louder voices of self-doubt and logical productivity that makes sense for all kinds of things that are not writing. How to trust that voice, and clear all the other voices of criticism and judgement away. That’s not easy when there’s pain and loss swirling around in there as well.
The first thing you and this voice need to come to an understanding on is if there is still enough of you in this novel to make it worth continuing. It’s a love letter. Can it be a love letter to someone else? A past you, a time in the relationship that is now gone? A future you, to your own creative self? Does it need to be the project that you must work on now, or is it something to put aside and look at another day? There is no wrong answer here. You need to trust in the quiet voice, and dismiss all of the louder voices of “it’s silly not to finish something when you’ve gone so far” or “it’s stupid and terrible and why did I bother?” or “you’ll never be a writer.” (Pro tip: you are already a writer.)
But beyond trusting yourself, you need to learn to trust others. Despite the completely false myth of the solo writer in the unheated garret*, writers need community, to discuss their work, to discuss their process, for encouragement, for commiseration. If you’ve been pouring all of that into primarily one person, you need to start finding others. Start talking about your work, or what you are working on, and sharing it, and talking out loud about your fears and worries but also your joys and small victories, as you progress through your work, whatever it is.
(* Aside: I just looked up what a garret is, and it’s a habitable living space at the top of the house, often with sloping ceilings, and OMG, does this mean my writing space at home is a garret?! Am I the writer in the nicely heated garret?! This is amazing!)
Other people are not going to react in quite the same way as the love of your life, it’s true. Some, wonderfully, will be more encouraging. Some will be less. But in the practice of allowing the help and support of other people, you will learn to connect more to the quiet voice and bring that increasingly to the forefront, because ultimately, this is your guide. You’ll need to learn ways to cope with your own self-doubt and confusion, and trust yourself. You’ll need to be able to take in other people’s thoughts and opinions, sift out what’s helpful to you in them, and discard the rest.
This takes practice, of course, but it all starts in giving the quiet voice more power to stand on her own. You’ll need to listen to her and encourage her. She knows what it’s like to speak up. The rest of you needs to learn what it’s like to listen to her.
But Sonal, didn’t you say you were left with two things? Wasn’t there a novel?
Yes, there was a novel. In the aftermath, I sat down and read it, and this novel was me. It was written with much encouragement and support, but there was nothing was lost in transmission. It was quiet voice-to-page.
It also wasn’t very good. Granted, no first draft is good. But while there were some good bits in it, some scenes and moments that surprised me in a good way, the work it would take to revise it into a good novel was more than my interest in it. I’d learned, and most importantly, I’d succeeded in finishing it. That was enough.
But there was a character that came through in the novel that had surprised me. I’d loved writing the novel to see what he would do next, because I never knew. I loved him. I still love him. He did handstands for no reason. He was a mohawk-sporting, motor cycle-riding, hilariously wise weirdo. He frustrated the others until they realized that he was comfortable being himself, and wanted others to be comfortable with that too, even if it didn’t fit other people’s expectations. He was kind and generous and very funny. Nothing brought him more joy than a delicious cookie, except perhaps more cookies.
He was the quiet voice.