BORNE: Love and Time

BORNE: Love and Time

The thing I’ve always loved best about science fiction, above even space ships, time travel, and aliens, has been the way it offers lenses through which we can see a little more clearly our own humanity, however warped the glass – in many cases because of that warp. By seeing ourselves alongside humanoids that are, in fact, extreme versions of human traits; by seeing the results of our own actions and inactions extrapolated out into horrifying or gleaming futures; by experiencing the awe of us at our very best; we can recognize what we are a little more fully. The best science fiction uses the unfamiliar and the strange to reacquaint us with what it means to be a person.

BORNE, by Jeff Vandermeer, is a novel that accomplishes all these things. It offers a view on climate change, genetic manipulation, the nature of love, and the strangeness of time, all the while being a strange narrative, brimming with enormous flying bears, alcohol fish, a wizard, children spliced with tech and animal parts, and above all, a shape-shifting creature dubbed Borne.

Shades of Love

Rachel is a scavenger clinging to survival in a strange city, where lives can be wiped out in one blood-misted instant when Morde, the giant flying bear that has overthrown its creators and runs rampant, gets cantankerous and sweeps his paw through a few buildings. Still, Rachel has a home in Balcony Cliffs with her boyfriend Wick, whom she loves in spite of his secrets.

Then she finds Borne. A small, plant-like thing clinging to Morde’s fur. She takes Borne back to Balcony Cliffs, where Wick suggests he be broken down for information, and salvage. Rachel refuses, and instead begins learning to care for what she thinks is a plant.

Very soon, that plant reveals its ability to speak telepathically, and begins to look more like an upside-down squid.

Rachel embarks on the task of raising Borne, innocent and tremulous and strange, as if he is her child. She helps him find food, she tries to pass to him the lessons her dead parents taught her, and in return he makes her laugh, he challenges her, and he reminds her of the things in her terrible world that are beautiful. Rachel’s relationship with Borne is one rarely depicted in science fiction with this sort of depth: it is that of a parent and child, with all its joy, tedium, heartbreak, and uncertainty.

Rachel is uplifted by Borne’s accomplishments. She laughs as they race down hallways. She worries that she isn’t teaching Borne enough. She sets aside Wick’s questions about what Borne is, ignores any warning signs that he might be dangerous, and doesn’t wonder too deeply about the fact that Borne’s droppings are never anywhere to be seen.

When Borne asks, “Am I a person?” Rachel always answers “Yes.”

She mourns Borne’s rapid growth, how quickly it seems he stops needing her guidance, just as any sappy parent would when their kid starts school. This relationship, between a woman and a shape-shifting piece of biotech, rings true because it is as difficult as it is wonderful.

Equally complex is Rachel’s relationship with Wick. Here is a couple often left wondering why they’re together, especially as Borne grows and inserts himself more and more into their relationship. They have a good partnership, with Rachel going out into the city to scavenge for parts, while Wick takes what she brings back and uses it to create more biotech to sell. But they also have secrets, ones that threaten to drive them apart.

Like a real couple, they struggle to communicate at times. At others, they synchronize well. There are moments in the novel when they both fight for what they want, rather than what’s best for the other person. And there are others when they make sacrifices to save each other. What they have is ultimately rich, dynamic, and in constant flux. And in the end, they need each other to survive.

 

Warped Time

Time in BORNE can be strange. Rachel often casts back in her memory to better times with her parents, especially when she is struggling to raise her murderous, tentacled pseudo-child, and so flashbacks abound. The miserable present frequently becomes all the bleaker juxtaposed against the moments when Rachel’s parents took her out for a celebratory meal.

But on a smaller scale, BORNE also tends to put events together based off their relationship to one another, rather than when they occurred. In one particular instance, Borne and Rachel are hiding on a rooftop, watching as the spliced children they believed would kill them are slaughtered by the giant bears who most certainly will kill them. The battle between these two groups is described in gory detail from beginning to end, and then there is a break in the narrative. Rachel then describes what Borne was saying over the course of the combat. And then the narrative jumps back into the bear now climbing the stairs, seeking them.

This arrangement means that the battle between the spliced children and the bears goes uninterrupted, and then the reader gets to see, separated out for emphasis, Borne’s commentary on this moment. If these things had happened together on the page, the horror of the slaughter would have been broken up, and Borne’s thoughts on it would have been lost in the chaos. Time jumps, which are very often done to challenge a reader to play mental hopscotch, in this case give the reader more clarity. There’s no need to recall that moment when the Wizard first appeared to Rachel as she encounters the mysterious figure’s meddling in her life: the two things are placed together, and so their importance is clear.

The way time is broken also makes a great deal of sense in light of what has happened to Rachel. By the end, we discover that Wick once removed the memories of her parents’ death, so that she could move on with her life. And so Rachel’s life is split, into a time before her parents died, and the time after. In order to bridge the gap between, she must hold moments up and compare them, tearing apart time to make sense of what is happening around her.

 

Adding Complexity

I think one of the best lessons a writer can take from BORNE is the importance of complexity in relationships between characters. This novel presents love in so many different shapes, even though Rachel only has two primary relationships over the course of the novel. The task of parenting Borne is full of missteps and successes, and moves rapidly from Borne as helpless plant-thing to Borne as threatening monstrosity.

There is all the tender love, all the dull frustration, and all the fear (rational and irrational) of a genuine relationship between a parent and a child. Nothing about this is distilled or simple. Rachel might defend and romanticize Borne’s innocence, but all the while she suspects that he is much more than he seems. She watches with thrill and discomfort as he grows. And ultimately, she is left feeling that she failed him even as she assures herself that she could not have done any differently.

Rachel’s relationship to Wick also has a raw realness to it. They each struggle for control, try to do what is best for one another, break one another’s trust, and ride all the ups and downs of a close partnership. It is only by accepting the things they can never know about each other, accepting the wounds that each has suffered at the other’s hands, that they are able to at last live together in peace.

BORNE is a reminder that we as writers will do well to look at the ways people love one another, with all its depth and uncertainty and trials.

The way time works in BORNE is a technique that requires less careful observation and representation of human behavior, but much more planning and consideration. Here, time is pieced out and broken up, and events are positioned according to their relationship with each other, rather than their chronological order. This is a tactic that could very easily confuse readers if it’s overdone, but BORNE achieves balance and remains effective.

This, quite frankly, is exactly the sort of thing that I find the most challenging to accomplish when I’m writing. I imagine that taking this approach requires either extensive outlining or very careful editing. Regardless of the technique, it is time well spent, because when it’s done well, events in the book reverberate much more strongly than they might have otherwise.

 

Calling the Reader

Ultimately, BORNE is a novel full of complexity, strangeness, and big ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, less for its moments of tension (which it certainly has) and more for the ways it forced me to think. This is a book that trusts its readers, and even challenges them to keep up and consider more deeply. I appreciated that, and I dare to say that most readers do.

This is one of the greatest challenges of writing: to not only entertain readers, but also to trust them to follow along whatever strange paths we might take them.

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The Writer in the Words

The Writer in the Words

“But I will tell the night

And whisper “Lose your sight”

But I can’t move the mountains for you.”

-Mumford & Sons, “Timshel”

 

For a very long time, I’ve been a lonely writer. I have worked in isolation, making what I’ve wanted to make, editing my own work, reaching for the bookshelf and finding whatever I could on my own. In some ways, this has been a comfortable way to write, and it’s given me a rare opportunity to create things that are, down to every detail, the product of my own mind.

With this comes a loneliness that’s impossible to ignore, and a tendency to spiral ever inward on my own ideas. Or to spend years making the same mistake over and over again.

Recently, however, I’ve landed in a place where I’m surrounded by other people who like to put words on paper, people who are willing to read what I have. It’s been a downright giddy experience, to lean out of my cubicle and find myself talking to someone who also spins tales. And earlier this week, one of these fellow word geeks offered some feedback that brought me to a halt, and then sent me into the wilderness, seeking some dark piece of my own soul I’d hidden, and hidden well.

“You built up this scene, and then you just let the pressure off too soon. It needs to build more, it needs to be a bigger moment.”

It wasn’t just good advice, it was a thing that had been gnawing at me for a while, and something I’d done many times. A lot of moments in my writing that I’d meant to be really big had, in fact, fallen flat when I finally got them on the page.

I spent the rest of the day asking myself why.

***

I could see in the scene pointed out to me that it didn’t have all the tension it should because I hadn’t allowed my character a moment of uncertainty within it. She follows a beastie down into its lair, she creates a plan, and then she executes it, both figuratively and literally. The moment feels choreographed. Safe. There is no question, from beginning to end, that she’s going to deal with things just fine.

Considering the amount of time I’d spent building up to the confrontation, it made no sense. And yet, I had never changed the way it played out.

Why couldn’t I let my character stumble, struggle, spend even a few seconds thinking that she might fail, might fall?

Was I trying to spare the character? Was I trying to spare the reader?

No, I decided, none of the above. I was sparing myself.

I didn’t want to drop my character into that kind of uncertainty, because within my writing I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to have a sense of control that I couldn’t exert in my own life. I desperately wanted that feeling of choreography, of planned moves, of knowing that everything is going to turn out just fine, all under control.

But that’s not what writing is for.

***

For several years, my life felt under attack from outside forces. I seemed to constantly be standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff, stepping backwards more and more as the ground in front of me vanished.

I miscarried my first pregnancy, and subsequently lost faith in the religious beliefs that had guided me all my life. Short behind came the birth of Little Miss, a blessing, but also a high-needs insomniac. Then my husband’s second deployment, during which I left the place that felt like home and the support network I’d built there, to return to the place I’d once called home and the support network that needed patching. Just when I thought I’d found my place, my grandmother, the beloved matriarch of my family, passed away. Then at last, when my husband returned home, he was not the same as when he’d left, and we spent the next few years struggling to get a diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder. All the while, rejection letters from agents rolled in.

That’s a hell of a list, and I spent a lot of time feeling a bit like the universe’s favorite punching bag.

So I came to my notebook, my pen in hand, and I made the lives of my characters a little bit cleaner. Sure, there were baddies to take down and moments of peril, but never too much of a mess. I didn’t feel like walking up to the cliff and dangling my feet over. I just wanted to take a peak, and then go safely back home, where I could shut the door, bake some bread, play nice music, and rest assured that there were no monsters under the bed.

My life was a whirlwind, a place of all questions and no answers, and I couldn’t let that mess creep over in my writing. I had to cling to at least the illusion that somewhere a world existed where plans could unfold carefully, one step at a time, where even the occasional deviation didn’t mean disaster, just detour.

I made my writing an escape, a little bubble of denial. And in doing so, I crippled the tension in my own narrative, and set back the very dream to which I sacrificed sleep and sanity and normalcy. Some of the things that happened during the years of chaos were nobody’s fault. There were so many tragedies and shiftings and falls that came on my household organically, a simple consequence of the unpredictable nature of life. But there is one mistake that I made, which I still feel today.

I didn’t write the truth. I wrote what made me feel safe.

***

When Little Miss and Little Dude were tucked into bed, and The Hubs was fully engrossed in a TV show, I pulled out my raggedy notebook and my pen. I read myself into the offending scene, and at the critical moment where I’d betrayed the narrative, I began re-writing. I would start again, rebuild from the ground up.

I went into it, expecting that it would be a difficult task. After all, it had taken me years to come to terms with my own failing. Surely the writing itself would be hard.

It wasn’t. I actually found it thrilling to throw my character off her game a little. I watched her confront uncertainty, stumble, feel her feet go over the edge of the cliff, and then I watched her rise up and come back from it. I admired her more than ever. I hadn’t cleared the way, and yet she’d survived. And the narrative was all the stronger for the doubts I’d thrown in.

***

I’ve always nodded sagely at the metaphors writers use when they talk about their craft. “It’s like dancing on the rooftop naked.” “It’s like fighting your own demons in public.” “It’s like throwing your dirty laundry onstage for everyone to see.” I always interpreted these quirky images as a way of saying that writers must be willing to tell their personal stories, put down on the page their true experiences. And perhaps that’s part of it.

But so often the very craft of writing is a game of overcoming mental barriers. We must learn to have our precious stories critiqued, and then cut and change with a smile. We must be willing to acknowledge that our work ethic sucks, and it’s time to set ourselves a schedule and just slog our way through a daily word count. We must learn to roll with rejection letters, though they sting like hell, and then some.

This week I found that we must walk through the hells of life, and still come to the page willing to write what is real, no matter how much it frightens us, no matter how much it hurts. It is important, so very important, that sometimes our characters fall, and even we the writers think that maybe, this time, they won’t get back up. So that if they do scramble back to their feet, our relief and our admiration will be well earned.

And if they don’t, we will be reminded that when the worst happens, the story goes on.

 

 

Short Stories Are A Go

Short Stories Are A Go

Hello Bright Ink readers! I’m very excited to tell you that I’ve figured out, with the assistance of my tech team (aka The Hubs) how to make a page for short stories!

If you go to the menu, you’ll now find a link to short stories, and on that page you’ll find a link to my first work of fiction to go up on this site, In-Spiral.

Or, if you don’t feel like doing that, I’ve provided a link to the whole short story page here, and a link to In-Spiral here.

I’m so happy to start sharing my fiction here, and I look forward to sharing much more.

As always, thanks for reading!

Where I’ve Been and What’s Coming Next

Where I’ve Been and What’s Coming Next

Hello, Bright Ink readers!

I haven’t posted in quite a while, and I’m going to take this space to briefly go over why.

Most recently, and most memorably, I had my wisdom teeth extracted. Let’s just say that the subsequent trials, tribulations, and exhaustion have limited my productivity. I’m just proud that I was able to take care of kids’ baths a couple of times this week. As of today, I’m grateful that the swelling in my face is down enough that I no longer look like one of those goldfish with the giant sacks under their eyes.

Just before that I joined some of my coworkers for a writing group, with goals and everything, which has been a wonderful way for me to start generating new ideas.

Coworkers, you might ask? Do you mean your kids? You’re writing with a five-year-old?!

First of all, writing with a five-year-old is not the worst prospect. Just the other day she created a picture book about an alien who visited a family and asked them for a bowl of soup. I’ve certainly heard adults propose much less interesting plots.

But in fact, as of a month ago I started a job. A real job, with training, assignments, coworkers, and a dodgy water cooler. No computer yet, but I’m eagerly awaiting the day that one is finally acquisitioned on my behalf. It’s going to be great. And that, you might think, would be the biggest challenge I’ve dealt with that was keeping me away from my blog, my camera, queries, and writing at large.

Close!

The last big thing, which I just finished today, was photography for my little brother’s wedding. Editing those wonderful photos has consumed most of my free time since I took them a month ago. And as truly happy as I was to take them, sort them, and edit them, I am very glad to be done.

FlowerGirlInATree M&R June2017
Little Miss in her flowergirl dress, climbing a cape myrtle.

So yes, life has been busy, but there seems to be some prospect in the coming weeks of things quieting down and falling into a rhythm. Which isn’t something that’s often been on my horizon, so I’m definitely looking forward to a bit of quiet, even boredom.

That said – I won’t ever be too bored, because I have plenty of projects that I can slide off the backburner and onto the front.

One upcoming project that I’m super excited about is my Wonder Woman armor. As soon as I saw the costumes in the new movie, my urge to craft some of my own became too powerful to resist. That Grecian style skirt, that breastplate, those greaves! There, at last were women, and entire cast of them, wearing real armor. Made sleeker and more stylish, yes, but at its core, what I saw was more like something worthy of being worn in combat than I’d ever seen before.

I did try to talk myself out of the project. I’ve never made my own EVA foam armor before, and it looked like an enormous undertaking. And of course, the fact that Wonder Woman just released means that I risk being one of many. But the opportunity is too good to resist, especially when I searched the internet for any character who wears something remotely similar and came up dry.

I decided to dive in, and I’m so glad I did.

Within a matter of days, I’d wrapped my torso in plastic, covered that in duct tape, and created a pattern.

Duct Tape Pattern
The beginning of my Wonder Woman armor.
Armor Pattern
Making foam armor is surprisingly similar to making a fabric garment. At this step, anyway.

Then I sketched out all the detail pieces on butcher paper.

The details
This was time-consuming, but also lots of fun.

And I cut my EVA foam pieces with a very sharp craft knife. Then I burned up my hair dryer trying to heat the foam pieces enough to shape and glue them, so there was a temporary pause on the whole endeavor while I ordered a heat gun – and a new hair dryer.

Cutting EVA
Yes, that’s a foam floor tile.
Future Armor
Hopefully these will all go together!

It’s been so satisfying to work on something that has a physical end product. And to dig into something so utterly, unabashedly geeky lends its own thrill.

In more writing-related projects, I’m wrapping up a short story that I hope to post here on Bright Ink, with hopefully more to follow.

So, for now that’s it! Hopefully this post will be my return to regular blogging. I’m definitely glad to be back at it, and look forward to keeping you updated on my progress with Wonder Woman.

Thanks for reading!

The View from Right Here

The View from Right Here

It’s really easy, as an unpublished author, to get caught up in dreams of the future. My goal for a long time now has been to find an agent, find a publisher, and get my work on the shelves. It’s something I’ve imagined since junior high, something I’ve worked towards for years, now. I want to tell my stories to other people, to hear that they’ve enjoyed the journey, or best of all, that it made them think. Or even that they hated it, though that is less desireable.

I want more than just to write. I want to be read. And more than to be read, I want to have a conversation with people. I want them to know my characters, I want them to go on this adventure with me. I want to know what they think might happen next, how they relate to my story, whether or not it has any meaning to them.

So, in some ways, it’s a bit like torture, to have written so much (I’ve finished one novel in a series, and the first draft on the second novel, and I’m working on a third and totally unrelated manuscript, now) and still have only a few readers among my close friends.

But, this is no way to live as a writer, constantly querying and waiting for responses, waiting for that chance to move on to the next step. It’s a recipe for complete frustration. So, I’m trying to cultivate an appreciation for where I am right now. I’m trying to learn to appreciate the view from right here.

 

It’s All Mine

What good is there, in being an unpublished writer? What good is there in existing in this state of longing, without any idea of what might happen next?

First of all, I can write selfishly. I can work on making exactly the kinds of stories I want to make, without the expectation of an audience. No one is standing over my shoulder, anxiously waiting to see the next page, the next paragraph, the next novel, filled with ideas of what it might look like. I can explore every little side path on the way, I can indulge in the kinds of writing I like the best, and no one can tell me that I should do otherwise. I am my only critic and I am one of a very small group who is attached to my work.

If a scene wanders off into strange territory, I am still writing to an amorphous, imagined audience. I don’t have to question what they might think. I don’t have to worry if they’re going to find that scene or that character’s actions difficult to believe. Because I know when I start thinking about that, the way I write will change, and the paths I decide to take will be different.

If what I want to write is a long, dialogue-free scene about a character wandering through the forest and contemplating the meaning of her choices, I can. I can appreciate how beautiful a scene like that is, without worrying that it doesn’t fit the overall tone of the book, or that it isn’t what my readers expect. I might have to cut it later, but for now I can write it, fully invested, because it’s what I want to write. I can describe it down to the pebbles in the creek where she stops for lunch. I can detail everything she eats, and never wonder if perhaps it’s a little silly.

So, there is undoubtedly a freedom to being an unpublished author. I’m under no obligation to please a large audience. No one is investigating my work, seeking minutiae to critique, the places where my voice rings false, the grammatical errors, the plot holes. It is only my own criticism that matters, at this point, mine and the occasional beta reader.

 

Room to Fall

Then, there are the mistakes. For now, I’m allowed to make them in front of a small audience. When my writing is very bad, when I put on paper a character who isn’t as rich and complex as I’d like, it’s a small audience that witnesses my errors. When I write something downright confusing, I still have time and space to go into my manuscript and make improvements.

I can take risks, without concern about what my critics will say. I have room to learn new techniques, with no agent, no editor, no publisher, no audience to tell me what direction I should take, what makes for a good voice or style. There is a place in my writing for falling down and getting back up, unseen.

Yes, this means there are very few who can tell me exactly where I might be going wrong, or exactly how to fix it, but it also means I can learn for myself. There is a frustration in that, but also joy, and ownership of success when I get it right.

I like writing without the burden of abundant criticism. Yes, those critiques are necessary to making progress in writing, but some of them are just plain wrong. Like that time I was told by a critique partner that I ought to read George R.R. Martin to learn how to build descriptions.

Yeah, I’ve read George Martin, and while what he does is incredibly good, it’s not my style, and not what I’m aiming for.

It’s tough, though, to sort out the useful criticism from the bad, and even knowing that some of the critiques I’ve gotten have been way off track, it still stings a little. I’m not trying to write Game of Thrones, but the fact that someone found my writing lacking, even if their suggestion for fixing it was awful, isn’t so easy to deal with.

So yes, being able to make mistakes in my own time, and being able to correct them as I prefer, is a huge advantage to being a writer without an agent, without a publisher, without a paying audience.

 

Writing in Shadows

Then, there is the wonder of possessing a secret, a secret that most of the world doesn’t even know to ask about yet. I hold my books, all the events in them, and all the places where they might go, in my hands and in my head. It is in my power to talk to my friends and family about the story that I’ve written, but I don’t.

This is mostly because I’m a writer, and not because I love keeping secrets. I am actually a terrible secret-keeper, under most circumstances. The only reason my stories aren’t bouncing out into the world is because I can barely string together the words to describe the plot without a piece of paper in front of me. I write better than I talk, and so for the most part what I’ve written is locked away.

Still, it is all my secret. Every word, good or bad, still belongs to me and no one else. And there is something special, rare, and wonderful in that knowledge, even as I experience the frustration of being in a fandom of one. All the rough edges and all the beautiful moments lie in the dark, known only to me. They are mine, as wholly as an unborn child belongs to its mother.

 

The Mundane

Finally, there are all the obligations of being a published author – a successful published author, anyway. The public appearances, the book signings, all the I-don’t-even-know-what. I can see, even from where I stand, that being an author is about a whole lot more than just writing whatever you like. There are other people to please, and many places to go.

Right now, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, typing up my meandering thoughts on what I like about my current writing life. I’m wearing Yoga pants, my sweater (a blanket with sleeves, if we’re being really honest), lunch beside me, my kids playing nearby. It’s not ideal for concentration, perhaps, but it’s comfortable. Far more comfortable than having to go out in the world and convince other people that my book is one they want to put on their reading list.

I’m more than willing to do all these things when the time comes, but for now, it’s nice that I don’t have to.

 

Going Out

I look forward to that brave and wonderful moment when a book that I’ve written goes out into the world. I don’t think I will ever stop seeking that achievement. I’ve certainly pursued it longer than I imagined I would when I started on this journey.

But I also am trying to savor where I am right now. I’m enjoying the freedoms that I have, the comfortably obscure corners in which I write. Because the view from right here isn’t so bad.

Spring

Spring

I’ll admit that spring has never been my favorite season. This transition from cold and snowy weather into the blazing heat of summer usually leaves me more sad than anticipatory. Packing up sweaters and coats and knitted scarves and leather boots is a ritual of mourning. Pulling out tank tops and shorts, with their washed-out or neon-bright colors, a disappointment.

I stubbornly refuse to swap my hot coffee for the iced version.

I prefer autumn. Give me bright leaves over delicate flowers, any day.

The past couple of years, though, I’ve learned to start appreciating this change in the seasons, because in the last couple of years I’ve had a vegetable garden. This is an exciting time of the year for people who plant things. Right now, peas and radishes are sprouting in my beds, sending up miniscule leaves and shoots, bits of green poking up out of dark earth. Tomatoes and broccoli plants grow under lights in my basement. Now is the time when all the plans I made in January and February become action.

I assemble my growing light in a basement closet, spoon dirt into black plastic capsules, tuck seeds underneath. I add dirt to my garden beds, I evaluate the activity of perennials poking up. Every weekend seed packets rustle and watering containers spill out their contents. I can almost hear roots wiggling their way through the earth.

This is also the time when I start running into snags, and little unforeseen problems crop up. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout. Sometimes a hard rain knocks seedlings to the ground. Weeds sprout. Toddlers pull up plants.

I do not deal so well when things go awry. I’m working on it, though.

Pink and Thorns
Leaves, buds, and also thorns.

I noticed this about myself shortly after graduating college. That was when I started to work on my novel. I had a beautiful vision in my mind of how it was going to go. I had epic scenes and complicated relationships all ready. My main character was awesome, and she was ready to conquer anything that stood in her way. The ending was hazy, but I figured that would work itself out when I got there. No problem.

Around the fourth chapter, things started getting messy.

Based off my conversations with people on airplanes, this seems to be where most novice writers run into trouble when they start working on a book. It’s always, “Oh, you’re a writer! I started a book once, and I just couldn’t get past that fourth chapter.” So I guess I’m not the only one.

When things got complicated and I felt myself getting stuck, I skipped ahead to a scene that seemed clear to me. And so I wrote my first novel, hopping around through the narrative, filling in the bits that were the most fun and about which I was the most certain. Then one day, I ran out of fun, easy scenes, and I found it was time to connect them all.

This was not a good time for me.

Forest Floor
The green is there, and soon the flowers will be, too.

I used to think of spring as a time when rains fell, and all the dirt and muck of winter washed away. It was a time of brightness, of renewal, of new things.

But with new things, with all that vigorous growth, comes chaos. Vegetables and flowers aren’t the only things to spring up out of garden beds. Weeds are often the first characters on the scene, and they are remorseless. They spread before many plants have a chance to get started, covering the earth with their pernicious runners, spreading seeds into any spot that the gardener hasn’t had a chance to fill.

Renewal doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Sometimes the change of all that growth can be overwhelming. Sometimes what all that freshness and renewal does is show us just how much we still need to learn in order to deal with all that change.

Star Flower

I wrestled with that first draft for months. My book had to be perfect, had to combine literary technique that I’d worked so hard to learn with exciting plot. I forced the pieces together, made everything I had fit into place. I swelled with pride when, after all those months, it was done.

Then, a while later, I started to read. And what I read was not good. It turned out that by keeping every scene that I’d enjoyed writing and wedging them all together, what I had was a chaotic, meandering mess of a novel. Some parts were good, but they were being choked out by all the extraneous bits. I had a garden, but it was mostly weeds.

I couldn’t believe, after all that work, that I could end up with such a mess. Clearly, I was no writer. My masterpiece was, in fact, nothing more than a scribble made by a grade-schooler. I shoved the papers in a box, and swore I was done trying to be a writer.

Forest Flowers
These delicate guys didn’t give up.

A garden in spring is chaos. But it is also hope.

Weeds spring out of the ground as soon as the snow melts, threatening to claim all the territory as their own. Some perennials from years before never grow at all. Sometimes a late snow threatens the kill back any new growth. A snowstorm can wipe out trees. A cat might decide that the patch where carrots are growing will make a phenomenal litterbox.

Yet a skilled gardener can pull out the weeds, carefully prying out roots so they don’t grow back. The wanted plants can be separated from those that are unnecessary. Soil can be enriched with compost. Sun-loving plants and shade-loving plants can be moved to their proper places, where they will thrive and become abundant.

Floral Branch

I had to learn how to be a novelist. This, it turns out, is a distinct skill from being a good writer. I had long practiced crafting beautiful sentences, spinning exciting scenes, and so I thought I already had all I needed. But in a novel, the story as a whole must work. A writer can create the most beautiful scenes in the world, but if they don’t work well in the story she is trying to tell, then the book will fail.

After some time away from my novel, I returned, ashamed at my vow never to write again. I picked up a red pen, and I learned new skills. I researched how to edit. I cut the scenes that didn’t work without mercy. I found the thread of the story, the thing that would hold the characters and the narrative together, and I shaped new scenes that made that narrative cohesive. I created a plot where once there had been chaotic meanderings and happenings.

Most of all, I learned how to stick with the task in front of me, even when the job seemed overwhelming. I learned how to sit at my notebook and work on scenes that weren’t my favorite thing to write, but were necessary to the story.

Chaos can be tamed, but it takes time, skill, and patience. It takes the wisdom to sort what is necessary from what isn’t. Like a gardener, a writer must learn to tell weeds from productive plants. Which is especially tricky, because what might be a weed in one garden could be desireable in another.

Beautiful Things

Spring is not so bad, although I’m not buying that it’s a time of blank pages and renewal. This season is a beginning, but like most beginnings, it is chaotic, full of all the trouble and challenges of new things. Beautiful things come forth, but not all of them are worth keeping.

As I write a new novel, as I plant my garden, I keep in mind all the work ahead. It doesn’t overwhelm me, anymore, because I have learned how to meet these challenges after years of wandering in a confusing, chaotic wilderness. This ability to keep the final vision in mind, and work towards it, is a skill that I have earned over years of work, and it is a skill that I constantly refine.

Sometimes, I would give a lot to have a time machine, to go back and tell myself that the mess of a novel that I hold in my hands will be better if I’m willing to let go of the parts that don’t work. That the skills I need to tame the weeds are not inborn, and that I can learn them, with time. That I will learn them. And that the time I have spent crafting this first draft, though it is clunky and cumbersome and full of unnecessary bits, has been well-spent.

Of course, I can’t go back. But I can go forward, and I can enjoy the chaos of this season.

A Message to Myself When I Tread Rocky Paths

A Message to Myself When I Tread Rocky Paths

With every fall of every foot, you will sing this song to yourself. And it will keep you going, even when the air grows thin and cold. It will push you forward, even when the mountain peak rises high above you.

Persist.

When the pages trickle by, when you have no time to put your pen to paper, when you are dehydrated and covered in the unspeakable substances that issue from your own offspring. When all your stories lie locked inside your head, with seemingly no hope of ever getting out. When you stumble in a haze of sleep-deprived weariness. When you are unsure of your own name, let alone what that word is for someone who demonstrates a lot of knowledge. (It’s ‘erudite’ by the way.)

Persist.

When even those measly paragraphs that you do eke out feel more like dry bones than the living, breathing story in your mind. When you know you will revise all this, and take out more than you keep, and re-write it all again. When you aren’t sure that you can even write at all, anymore.

Persist.

When you see your own mistakes laid out, bold and clear in front of you. When you know you have so much further to go, and so much more to learn than you ever imagined.

Persist.

When you are drained and filled with self-doubt as you grapple with yet another revision. When you must rest, so that you can take care of yourself and the people you love, know that the next morning you will rise and whisper the song to yourself.

Persist.

When the feedback is good. When the words rise up, one after the other, certain and true and right. When you see all your ideas falling into place and everything fits better than you hoped, sing your song aloud.

Persist.

You may rest. You may work. You may despair. You may feel like your heart is hollow, or like it is clad in iron, or filled with sun-warmed air. No matter how you feel –

Persist.

Let this song be the only one you sing. Let it greet you in the morning, let it soothe you at night, let it be your constant companion as you go on this journey. It is a battle cry, it is a sustaining ballad, it is a weary hum. It will take you everywhere you need to go.

There will be writers who get published before you do. Cheer them on, knowing that this is their song, too. There will be setbacks. Take comfort, knowing that this song will get you through every challenge. There will be things you don’t know. Go out and seek the knowledge, from books, from those who are wiser, from your peers, from your friends, because this, too, is part of the song.

There will be victories. There will be moments when you progress forward in startling leaps, and this will be because you remembered, all that time before, to sing.

Persist. Persist. Persist.