The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging. She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”
And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.
It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time. Far too long. At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel. And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.
I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story. And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong. What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.
To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver. I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!
Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment. He doesn’t want to see her. He’s there only because his parents said he had to be. All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.
How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something? Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.” And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.
What does Ben want? When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance. And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else. One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry? It makes him hard to like.”
I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger. So I kept working, committed to my original conception. When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me! I’m getting too old. I’m running out of energy. Maybe even, running out of brain cells.
(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)
It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth. When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading. And it was very possible it never would.
Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness. Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.
“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful. What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home? What if?”
“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine. “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.” It was a discouraged voice. A tired one. Let’s face it, an old voice.
“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again. “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer? Try it? What do you have to lose?”
Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?
Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?
Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.
And guess what. It’s working!