“You were always so impatient,” my mother tells me regularly. “Even when you were little, if I bought you a coloring book, you sat down and colored every picture immediately. Didn’t stop until it was finished.”
As I writer, I appreciate my mother’s ability to nail down the characterization. This without any lessons in showing vs. telling! But as a very human being who also happens to be a writer, I also think: my god. What happened to me?
My first collection of poetry took me twenty years to finish. My first collection of short stories took me twenty-two. I didn’t set out to write a collection in either of these genres, but when you keep writing, you tend to pile up some stuff and one day, if you’re me, you lay it all out on your bed and wonder if there are enough pages for a book.
A novel is a different beast, however. A novel is something I always wanted to write. Something that I approached deliberately (once I realized the short story I thought I was writing was something else), thinking: I want this to be a book.
My novel started one day when I thought I’d like to write a short story about the summer I visited a carnival with a friend and met a man who ran one of the concessions. He was exceedingly friendly to me, gave me several nights’ worth of free chances and so many plastic poodles to hang on my bedpost that my mother grew suspicious. When she asked me where I got the prizes and I told her, she warned me to be careful, but she did not stop me from going to the carnival again. I was ten.
Perhaps she thought, as I did, that nothing could happen in our small town where everyone was a cousin or married to a cousin or someone my mother went to school with. But that fall, a thirteen year old girl was kidnapped and killed walking home at night just a couple miles away from where the carnival had been set up.
Chapter by chapter, the short story turned into a novel that is and isn’t the story of that summer, that carnival, the fall from innocence we experienced when such a tragedy struck our town. Twelve years later — the speed of light for me — I finally finished it.
What happens next, even after a dozen years revising, re-structuring, wrestling with the beast that is plot, is almost (almost) not important. What is important is that I did it. I waited it out. Powerless to know how to manage the story and all its threads, I had no choice but to slog ahead.
If I had sat down at any time in my writing life and thought: Okay, I’ll write this poem/story/novel etc today and twelve, twenty, twenty-two years from now, I’ll have a book, I would have put down the pen and picked up a paintbrush instead. And by paintbrush, I mean the kind you use to re-do your downstairs bathroom. In a way, I just kept coloring one picture after the next until I could close up shop on one particular work.
This makes me wonder if my mother had it exactly right: maybe patience had nothing to do with finishing that book. Maybe finishing it had everything to do with it, instead.