In 1986 I returned to Toronto from spending a year away; a year in which I lived for six months in a commune in Oregon and six months in Vancouver waiting on tables. In the commune I had the great good fortune to have a boyfriend who was a Rebalancer and who gifted me with several treatments. These treatments changed my relationship with my body. They also changed the direction of my life, in that, when I returned to Toronto and received a lovely massage from my friend Rohita, I lay on the table and had these thoughts: That was nice. But I want Rebalancing. I’m going to India to take the training. Two years later, I had saved enough money for the trip, the training and six months in India.
What I learned in that training was more than just how to massage people; I learned about how emotions are stored in the body, how to allow myself to be touched, and many other aspects of bodywork, but through it all I learned about how I learn. This training was not an academic undertaking – the whole intensive six months was entirely experiential; we learned by doing. By the time I left India, I had received and given approximately one-hundred and fifty massages. My body understood much that it would take my mind years to catch up to.
For the last four years I have been learning to write a novel by writing a novel. It may not as first or second glance seem like the same thing, but for me, it is. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I should say, I have learned how not to write a novel. Sue Reynolds often reminds me that everything one writes is part of the process that leads one to the finished product. (No matter how crappy it is, I guess.) After workshops and conferences and courses, almost all of which were hands-on, and at least five full rewrites and two hundred pages of slain darlings, I have on my screen a nearly complete version of the story I will present to Penguin and to a particular agent to whom I have been pointed.
I’m not done.
I had a friend who often cautioned me to take my time, but I was always fighting her, bouncing up and down with my brilliant work, ready to shop it to all the agents who were going to drool over it. I don’t like to take my time; I like to get there, celebrate, pop open the champagne. But in this round of my life, I am learning to appreciate just that; the beautiful blossoms that open in their own time, who are not forced to bloom. I was told, it’s true, that I needed to take it slowly, to rub each word, phrase, scene in my fingers, to run my hands over the arc of the story, feeling for rough edges and seamless transitions, to put my ear to the mouths of my characters and listen all night long to them speak, but until I did those things, I couldn’t possibly know their value.
Now I’m involved in Author Salon, a brutal process of pitch evaluation, where we scour the site for “peers”; those we feel are a good fit, connect with at least five of them, and exchange critiques of our extensive profiles. The profiles include the “hook” line, a synopsis, the first two pages of our book, a breakdown of the conflict, stakes and climax, an introduction to all the characters, and samples of dialogue and our best writing. I thought that was the hard part, but as usual, I was wrong. Our critique guidelines are extensive – pages of in-depth questions regarding the profile, including things such as whether this story contains the necessary tropes of its genre. If so, explain. If not, explain….
I was ready to call it quits when the administrators threatened to delete any critiques that were inadequate. But the motivation of the site is to have polished, high concept works for editors and agents to peruse. It makes sense that the work has to sparkle and shine. Otherwise, the agents and editors will come only once. So I didn’t quit. I’m sitting with my Robyn Read edits and four peer critiques and having at yet another rewrite.
One aspect of my novel that has popped up in everyone’s evaluation is my antagonist. She needs more dimension, more depth. I always thought she was fine – I know people like that. Everyone knows people like that. But as if I had just thought of it myself, I suddenly understood what was wrong and how to fix it. I’m sure I could have learned how to do this in a classroom and obediently written down all the rules and regulations about how to fashion a literary antagonist, and I might have executed her (!) perfectly the first time. And I have read all those rules, guidelines and “necessary tropes”. But apparently, I have to learn how to do it right by doing it wrong the first time. This particular aspect of my own character seems to keep making me more compassionate. Huh.
You learn writing by writing. (I could have said that alone, but a blog post of five words isn’t as much fun as one of eight hundred and seventy-six.)