Donna Morrissey once said in a workshop something along the lines of: one only needs to mine the stories of one’s life in order to create fiction. This statement has been ringing like a bell lately. I’ve finished writing my last novel and while I’m waiting for it to come back from the editor, I’ve been looking at my first novel with fresh eyes.
I began to write The Cost of Weather while the crisis that inspired it was very much alive. My ex-husband coming for a visit when he got out of jail. Then. That’s when I started to write it, because what he told me that day in the warm spring sun, the river reflecting trees and sky, busted something inside so fiercely that I felt my skin rip.
But… just before that “crack in the world” moment, I’d met and been moved by one man’s story about how after his wife attempted to give their premature daughter up for adoption, he raised her alone until she was two. Then the mother stepped into the child’s life and insisted she move to England for a “proper education.” Once there, the child was kept from having any contact with her father. This man spent years sleeping on floors, taking trains across the UK, petitioning various organizations and legal bodies to try to have his daughter back in his life.
So… I began to write that story—a mile away from my own—about a good guy who hasn’t done anything wrong who can’t see his child, and about how he meets this woman who has an ex-husband who went to jail…
I rewrote that story seven times. I couldn’t get it right and I didn’t understand why. I had some male beta readers who were grateful that I had written it. It seems there are many good men whose wives have embittered their children against them and who make it impossible for the fathers to spend time with their children. So I struggled to get the story coherent, sympathetic, believable. And I failed.
Now I understand why.
What’s interesting is that the parts of the novel that really come alive; the ones I want to keep, are all in the woman’s point of view. The woman whose husband went to jail and came out only to hide from his son. The woman who tried desperately to keep open the lines of communication between father and son.
She had a marvellous backstory as well. About a lover she’d had many years before when she was in Europe and who showed up in the middle of the mess with something important to tell her.
I wrote that down. I wrote a whole book of “Katie’s” backstory. I loved diving deep into her old love affair, her early life, her history of dance, her family, how the old lover showed up… adding absolutely nothing to the overarching dramatic question of: Will these two characters come to peace with their exes in terms of their relationship to their children?
This was me skipping the point. Refusing to bleed. Writing pretty. “Darlings.”
Barbara Turner-Vesselago, in Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall, advises writers to allow ten years to pass before writing about traumatic events in our lives—allowing the emotions to settle, achieving perspective; letting it all “compost.”
It’s been well over a decade and I get it now. This story is “cured” enough.
Just as What the Living Do is my story and not my story, The Cost of Weather, or whatever title it will become, will be my story but not my story.
I got this.
(she says hopefully)