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Characters: Gay by nature or choice?

The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.

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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.

I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.

I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”

But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.

I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.

I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.

Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.

For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.

 

Author Spotlight

A great interview by my friend Michelle from the Young Adult Authors Rendezvous!

YA Author Rendezvous

An interview with author Paul Mosier

By: Michelle Lynn

  1. What are the titles of your work and can you tell us a bit about them?

Completed novels begin with Breakfast At Tuli’s, which I self-published in I think 2013. paulIt’s for grown-ups, and about a young woman with a compulsion to have relations with men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own situation while waiting for Tuli to find happiness. It’s very sweet when you get past the premise. My second novel is called Genre, but I haven’t done anything with it. It examines the origin of characters and the author’s ability to control them while poking fun at writers, writer’s groups, agents and genre fiction. The third is the first I wrote for a younger audience, and is called…

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Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered…

Source: Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered whether it wasn’t all a big mistake, a hoax, a conspiracy of kindness. Maybe my mother had paid some people to pretend to like my writing? I mean, the book features a chain-smoking Chihuahua and an invisible monkey, is named for a song sung by Elvis, and kisses the hand of Alan Ginsberg. And is drenched in sadness but is being marketed to children. How can this work?

Fortunately there are reviewers to sort things out, and when HarperCollins began sending out galleys, or Advance Review Copies, as well as making the novel available to librarians, booksellers and reviewers electronically, I anxiously awaited their reactions.

One of the first reviews was a very kind one from a woman in New Hampshire. On Goodreads, a website that allows users to share their thoughts about books, she gave it five stars and compared it to a book named Dicey’s Song, which I had never heard of but which sounded very nice and like the sort of book I might have read in grade school if I had not been too girl-crazy and basketball-obsessed to do any pleasure reading during my formative years.

Goodreads also allows authors and publishers to do giveaways of galley copies to promote a book in advance of its release. I did a couple of giveaways of galley copies beginning in summer, six months before the release. Each time, as many as 1400 people from around the world entered for a chance to win the four copies I gave away. Unfortunately two of the winners were in China, which, as it turns out, is not a cheap place to send a book. I do hope the recipients enjoyed it. HarperCollins limited eligible entrants to people living in the US and Canada, which may have been wise of them, even though they have deeper pockets than I do, and even though they have a presence in many countries around the world, and acquired the book’s rights for the entire world.

I wonder if the moon would count as part of World territory, too? The moon would probably say no.

One of the recipients of a giveaway galley, a man in Wisconsin, was not a reader but rather a seller who immediately put it for sale on Amazon. Though this was annoying and disappointing, at least he pretended to think it was a nice book when describing it in the sales pitch he used.

Looking at the people who have entered the giveaways is fascinating, as is looking at the people who have added the book on their “to read” list on Goodreads. For the 1045 people who currently have it listed as “to read,” two weeks and two days before the book is released, it appears that my strategy of writing in an attempt to win the favor of women– a pathetic bent of mine since my days as a junior high-schooler, when I didn’t read much myself but did write to try to please girls– is working out well. I have always felt that I was writing to a female audience, and the majority of the people requesting galley copies or indicating interest in reading are women and girls. This may be because I have written several novels without any guns, violent deaths or monster trucks, which is my primitive view of the ingredients for a successful bropus, which is a word I have just now made up, combining the popular “bro” with the heavier and more dignified “opus.”

More surprising are the other assorted beings and objects that have expressed interest in Train I Ride. Looking at the profile pictures on Goodreads, those who are lining up to read the book and then tell me I’m okay include 61% females, 16% menfolk, 7% multiple people sharing one name, 6% buildings or landscapes, 5% dogs of unspecified gender, 4% cats, 3% hamsters or gerbils, 3% birds, 3% mixed-species associations, 3% inanimate objects, 2% sports franchises, 2% cartoon characters,  1% disturbing images of darkness, and 14% other, including one mushroom cloud and two varieties of edible mushrooms. The preceding accounting may not add up to precisely 100 percent, but you get the idea.

Equally surprising is that a gerbil is able to read a novel and then write a review. Though judging by his or her assessment I think it’s clear that he or she is not my intended audience. In my thoughtful response I told him or her that he or she should stick to eating alfalfa pellets and reading the newspaper scraps lining his or her little prison.

Happily, aside from the gerbil the early reviews have been nice, especially the six that matter most. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal, The Horn Book Review and The Center for Children’s Books have all given Train I Ride positive reviews. The first three of the above gave it a starred review, which caused HarperCollins to decide to spend some money on advertising the book, something that isn’t normally done for an unknown author who has written a sad book for children which includes a chain-smoking Chihuahua, an invisible monkey, and lots of people who were dead before the story started, including a poet and a singer/member of the royalty who sung a song which names the novel.

Now I just need to know what you think of it.

Actually, I don’t really care. I’m asking for the protagnist, Rydr. She’s really insecure.

Juggling the Dream

 A lot has happened since my last post on this blog. When I think of it, it’s pretty staggering.

Our seven year old daughter Harmony– who turns eight tomorrow– was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in February. She has since undergone two 12-week courses of chemotherapy, before and after surgery to remove the tumor on the roof of her mouth, along with her four upper front teeth.

That experience gave rise to the Middle-Grade novel Echo’s Sister, which I wrote from February through May. The story is from the point of view of a 12 year old girl whose little sister is diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, and while it isn’t the story of what our family and our daughters experienced, it is very much informed by what we went through. It was a new thing for me to write about something that so closely resembled my own life, but I found it to be useful as a way to process all of it.

During this time I was simultaneously receiving positive news and updates about the cover and marketing plans for Train I Ride, the first book of my contract. Seeing all of the people involved in producing a book in the Big 5 publishing world hard at work on one of my own has been fascinating and surreal.

While waiting for my editor to read and respond to Echo’s Sister I began work on a novel that my agent and I were both excited about, tentatively titled Thirty Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all thirty major-league baseball parks in a desperate attempt at reconciliation or relationship-building. I was making good progress on it when my wife and two daughters took a week-long holiday to the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. During that time, doing no writing, going to no writer’s groups, I found myself seduced by the sense of place in the neighborhood where we stayed. Seaside town, boogie boarding and scoops of ice cream gave birth to an idea I have been working on ever since our return, called Summer and July. It’s a summer friends/summer crush story, and so far it has been making me very happy to write it. Of course my hope is that HarperCollins will exercise their option for a third book and acquire Summer and July, though that’s a long way off, and would most likely be a 2019 release date if it were to happen.

A week ago my editor informed me that she likes Echo’s Sister well enough for it to become the second book of my contract, provided I can make the editorial changes she thinks are necessary for it to become the story she hopes it can be. She is hoping I can do the story revisions in the next six weeks.

Meanwhile, I am also becoming more involved with the promotion of Train I Ride– communicating with the bookstore– Changing Hands– that will be selling at the release party in late January, along with the gallery owner, and trying to set up appearances at Barnes and Noble. Also I am hoping to make appearances at schools in the coming months. And there are things like giveaways of galley copies of Train I Ride on Goodreads to keep me busy. I am excited that Ami Polonsky, my agency sister and author of Gracefully Grayson (which my older daughter and I adored) and the forthcoming Threads, has read Train I Ride and kindly written a lovely blurb for it which will be used in promotion.

I find myself in the position of promoting book #1, editing book #2, and writing what I hope will become book #3 with HarperCollins. My agent tells me I should begin seeing the most important reviews in the next month, which are the first exterior indicator of whether my January Big 5 debut will be a success. I feel like I’ve got many more books in me, and that I am becoming a better writer every day. So here’s hoping– on the eve of Harmony’s eighth birthday– for many more years of happiness.

 

 

Train I Edit

Everything about the experience of having a book deal is new to me, and I have greeted all of it eagerly, including the editing process.

My first extensive experience with editing was with my first novel, Breakfast At Tuli’s. After writing it during NaNoWriMo in November of 2011, and then spending months revising and expanding it, I spent a reasonable sum for the services of Jacob Shaver, a friend I met at Lux, the coffeehouse I frequented most at that. He was, as I said, reasonably priced and talented, and did a good job helping me make it better. He also introduced me to the Central Phoenix Writer’s Workshop, which has been indispensable to my development as a writer.

Now, having been paid for a couple of books, one of which I have not yet written, I found myself waiting to hear what my editor didn’t quite like about the first draft, with the arrival of the editorial letter.

Working with Jacob, I could take or leave any suggestion he made freely: I was paying him, and while he made a lot of useful suggestions, when I rejected an idea I did so without fear.

But having a book deal, having sold the rights to the book being edited, what did it mean when my editor had a suggestion I didn’t agree with?

 

Since I had lunch with my editor, along with my agent and the editorial director back in October, I knew that there would not be a lot of cutting. They said that it was refreshing to work with someone whom they would not be asking to subtract 20,000 words. Instead, they said they would be asking me to add a few thousand.

When the first editorial letter arrived in early November, it looked like this: a couple of pages of narrative describing desired changes in broad strokes, accompanied by the manuscript with sections of the text highlighted, notes in the left margin.

It took a little while for me to understand my editor’s thinking. Rydr, my thirteen year-old protagonist, is a reluctant, unreliable narrator, but I needed for her to spill her story a little more completely without being untrue to her nature and her character. My editor has also helped me elicit a greater depth of feeling in places. I probably would not have believed that I could add 25% to the length without detracting from its economy of words, but I think that is what has happened. She has helped me to make a story that I believe will be ultimately a better, more satisfying version of what they found appealing when they green-lighted it. And that, as I have come to realize, is really what a talented editor can do: Like a producer for a piece of music, a director for a film, a conductor for an orchestra, the editor’s talent lies in her ability to make a story the best story it can be, and to bring out the best version of the writer the writer can express.

What I have learned through the process so far, through the work and through speaking with my agent and my editor, is this:

We are all on the same team, wanting to make Train I Ride the best book it can be.

At the end of the day I am the author, and nobody is going to make me write something I hate.

I have an enormous amount of respect and trust for my editor and the editorial group she is a part of. I am in the best hands, with the writers they have worked with and the books they have put forth, including the 2015 National Book Award winner in the category of Literature for Young People.

There are times when I have changed something I was happy with because I trust my editor. And there are times when she has let something I love stay as it is because she trusts me.

I think that she and I are working well together, and I hope that we can make lots of great books together.

Holy Crap I Have A Book Deal

After wrapping up the petite Train I RIde in April, having written it over just a few months, writing every day and workshopping it on average three nights each week, I made a proof copy for my older daughter to read. I also dutifully began sending query emails to literary agents.

My first novel, Breakfast At Tuli’s, is something I’m very proud of. It affected some people, including myself, very profoundly, but I collected approximately 125 rejection letters from agents that I sent query letters to. For those of you unfamiliar with what a query is, publishers will only look at novels submitted by literary agents, and literary agents must first be approached via a query letter in which the writer introduces him or herself and the book in question. Three and a half years after beginning my first novel, I had collected 200 rejections from agents for my first three completed works. Wrapping up my fourth novel, Train I RIde, I didn’t have the same hope that I did when I first queried Breakfast At Tuli’s. I had accepted the idea that writing novels that some people thought were really good wasn’t necessarily enough to reach a wider audience, but that I couldn’t be stopped from producing a physical book that I was proud of, and that could reach the hands and hearts of a limited audience.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for querying agents, and mountains of disappointment dating back to my days sending out crazy-ass short stores to literary journals in the 90’s, I began crafting queries for Train I RIde and emailing them to agents on April 26, 2015. I tried to be smarter at querying than in the past: For my previous three novels I had often sent my manuscript, or portions of it, to agents who represented books that I’d feel embarrassed to be seen holding.

I started with an agent who had asked for exclusivity in considering Breakfast At Tuli’s three years earlier, and who said she loved my voice in rejecting it. After all, if she liked my voice then, she might like it now, and her encouraging rejection has more than a little to do with my continued writing. I never did hear back on my query for Train I RIde.

My first rejection came for my fourth query, on the same day I sent it. Quick responses are always appreciated.

The first agent to say yes to the query, meaning “sure, send me the manuscript,” was the tenth agent I sent it to, the day after I queried her, the sixteenth day after I began sending queries. This was Wendy Schmalz of the Wendy Schmalz agency. She said she should be able to read it within four weeks. I sent it off, fingers crossed, and turned my attention to who else I could send it to. Meanwhile, to my surprise I had begun work on a follow-up to Train I RIde. I am suspicious of sequels as being done for the wrong reasons, but I was waking up with scenes of my protagonist’s next adventures playing in my head.

I continued sending queries to a total of 20 agents, and meanwhile developed a greater desire to be represented by the agent who held my manuscript. Reading interviews with her, looking at what writers who worked with her said about her, her nearly 30 years experience, the great books and authors she represented– Wendy became my most hoped-for, dream agent.

On day 29, having not heard from her, I sent Wendy an email telling her that I had developed a major author-agent crush on her, and how anxious I was to hear from her. She apologized for not yet getting to it, and said that she would have it read by the following Friday.

The next Wednesday I received an email that began I like TRAIN I RIDE very much. She said that if I was willing to make minor revisions– which took only minutes for me to make– she would like to discuss representation. On Friday the 19th of June I woke up early to speak to her on the phone in New York, and she offered to represent me and my work.

In the next week and a half, we discussed what else I was working on, and she suggested I put aside the follow-up to Train I RIde, as she said she could not sell a sequel until the first is sold. She asked me how to pronounce my last name, and it occurred to me that she would be calling the editors she submitted the manuscript to. It also occurred to me that I knew very little about the process of making a book beyond writing it.

On June 30 Wendy submitted the manuscript to four of the five major publishers, and told me the names of the editors she sent it to. It was exhilarating to think of these four women reading and considering my work, and I learned as much as I could about them online. Wendy said that since the publishing industry slows considerably in Summer, we might not hear anything for 8-10 weeks. SHe said that good news would always come by phone, but that emails were not necessarily bad news. She also said that my novel was not an easy sell, that character driven stories never are, but I hoped that her belief in it was a good indication that others would feel the same.

We exchanged a couple of emails in the next 10 days, and in one she signed off with hopefully I’ll have news for you soon. I wondered whether that was just a standard salutation, or whether she actually had reason to believe that she would have news for me. On Wednesday the 15th of July I tumbled out of bed to answer a call from Wendy in New York. She led with the bad news, that (Little, Brown) and Penguin had passed. Then she said that both (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and HarperCollins wanted it. She talked about what that meant, gave me options, and I said what I truly felt, that I was entirely confident in her making the best choice for me and Train I Ride. She went back to both publishers, and called me later in the day while I was stuck on an unusually long phone call with a client for my day job. When I listened to her voice mail 90 minutes later, it said that she had really good news. I called her back and was informed that HarperCollins had made a pre-empt bid– which is when a publisher tries to keep a book from going to auction by making a generous offer that they hope cannot be refused– for a two-book deal, with an option for a third, with a generous advance. It was easy to tell how much enjoyment Wendy got out of informing me that she had sold my first book– or rather, books– to a major publisher. She told me that it demonstrated a lot of confidence in me that they were willing to buy a second book that they didn’t even know I was necessarily capable of producing.

The next day I awoke to emails in my queue from the editorial director of HC Children’s, and the editor working with me, telling me how excited they are to be working with me, that they cried while reading the novel. It’s hard to describe the feeling I’ve had ever since. I’ve looked forward to every part of the process– the contract arriving, being asked my thoughts about the cover, for a book that will not be out until 2017. The fact that there are art directors and artists and editors and marketing people concerning themselves with this character, this protagonist that I love, and her story, and that they will help bring her to an audience all around the world, is the stuff dreams are made of. I am meeting Wendy, my editor and the editorial director for lunch in Manhattan in October, which will be more surreal than the advance money arriving two weeks ago. During all of this, what I am most grateful for is to have been able to share my happiness with others, including the writers whom I have labored alongside at writer’s groups, and to see in them the happiness I feel reflected back at me. Thank you, everyone, for being happy for me. May we all feel it at once some day.

A Novel Is Born

A Novel Is Born.

A Novel Is Born

Sometime in January, holidays done with, I turned my attention back to the memoirish thing I had been working on since completing Story Girl in late Summer. It had been difficult for me– writing a memoir is like building a car from the parts in a thousand-acre junkyard, determining what should be used and what should be left out from a vast experience. I had been writing it from the points of view of others who knew me during the year of concern, my fifth year as an undergrad, because my own voice from that period had me turning away from it again and again.

So in late January I found myself wondering where the next novel idea would come from, and when. I had to wait about fifteen minutes before the song lyric from Elvis Presley (by way of Junior Parker) entered my head. Train I ride, sixteen coaches long. 

It sounded like a good first line. But who would say it?

The train I ride is sixteen coaches long.

That’s actually a little long for any Amtrak that you might ride today– sixteen coaches– but who’s counting?

The character that I found looking out the window at the landscape rolling by was a kid. A girl– I prefer girls generally and find them more interesting as a subject of study, and have experience with my two daughters.

She starts talking. The train I ride is sixteen coaches long. 

Because of her first line, I decided I would write the entire thing in first person present tense, aside from first-person flashbacks. I had never written in present tense before, which evidently is a trend that is annoying some people that think about how novels should and should not be written. I forgive myself for whomever I might piss off, because I chose present tense not to be annoying or to mimic other books that I am unaware of, but because the inspiration for my first line is in first person present tense.

My protagonist reveals her world to me line by line. Why is she on the train, and as an unaccompanied minor? Where is she going? It’s hard to know because she tells lies and withholds truths early in the story. Why is she so unhappy?

Slowly I come to know her as she interacts with her Amtrak chaperone, other passengers, and a gay snack bar attendant whom she develops a crush on. There’s also a scout troop, all but one of whom are torn from the pages of Lord Of The Flies. 

I write twelve thousand words, then take the words off the pages while I build the timetable, then throw the words back at the page. It’s a new experience having to be true to the schedule of a train, what she sees when she looks out the window, where and when the next stop is. Having experienced most of the route of the train I describe last Summer is helpful. I play with the timetable a little, and buy an extra day by making the rising Mississippi RIver prevent the train from crossing, which nearly happened to my family and I on our journey, the water actually rising to the bed of the tracks.

By chance the novel becomes an homage to a certain well-known poem as my protagonist becomes aware of it. It changes her life, as promised, and becomes the lenses she views her world with. It was written, she feels, just for her.

Her name– her name is an accident, an accident later modified by her experience, which she chooses for herself. What her given name would have been is quietly revealed numerous times after I decided the name she was given at birth would not be revealed. It seemed like it was being revealed anyway.

With a twelve year old protagonist who turns thirteen on the train, I intended it to be accessible to young readers. But it is so heavy in subject matter, I am afraid that it is too much for most people the age of my protagonist. Writers at writer’s groups have enjoyed it, but often expressed that her speech is too intelligent or advanced, which I have heard with my previous all-ages show as well. She is obviously smart, and has experienced more than someone her age should have to experience by age 30, or maybe any age. I experienced less pushback on the authenticity of voice when workshopping my first novel, which is narrated by a fish, perhaps because people don’t have strong opinions on the vocabulary of fish. Deep into writing this I realized it was nearly entirely devoid of magical realism, so perhaps a protagonist narrator who sometimes, according to some, sounds too big for her britches, is the one concession to my habit.

It is nearly finished now, writing the story at least, though I have already written the ending. Just a few scenes and loose ends to tie up before editing and ironing out any inconsistencies. I love this protagonist as much or more as any that came before. Tuli, Shawnee, Maggie, and.. you’ll see. I am excited about bringing her to whatever public I can.

Sing Your Life/Spill Your Guts

Sing Your Life/Spill Your Guts

I have been journaling since 1986, when a certainty that I was not long for this world made me want to leave a footprint. But what I have brought forth for public consumption has always been fiction that bears little or no resemblance to my own life. Sure, my protagonists tend to hang out at coffeehouses like I do, and it’s true that if I love a woman in one of my stories I’ll make her a vegetarian who listens to music that I like– this has been true enough that I have thought it would be fun to deviate from this, to dress someone I need to love in clothes I cannot stand.

But those are just details. The characters themselves, and their stories, have come from outside of myself, from the muse.

Now, since writing the last words of Story Girl in summer, I have been working less than feverishly on something memoirish. Specifically, I have been writing about my college experience, and especially my 5th year as an undergrad, which I have in recent years stopped calling my second senior year in favor of my libertine year.

Writing about my own life has presented difficulties, though perhaps not the difficulties one might imagine. I am not reluctant to write about my mistakes, or my alcoholism, or promiscuity. Instead, the difficulties arise from these facts:

First, when thinking about the entire experience as a story, I see it from the way it felt the day I left college to come back to Arizona. I tend to aim for positive catharsis when writing stories, and that is not the way that it felt the day I left Virginia. I cannot tell the five years I spent there from today’s perspective– it only feels genuine to me when I feel it the way it felt when I walked away from it. That’s the point of view I want to tell it from. Over the years, approaching this task and turning away from it, it has always been because I didn’t like the sound of my own voice in talking about something that, in spite of being filled with friends and shenanigans, was deadly sad, almost too much to survive.

Second, when writing fiction, telling lies, it is easier to be in a moment with one’s characters. Writing Libertine, as I have been calling it, I am recalling a distant time period rather than creating one. And the tendency is to characterize instead of specify. As an example, I have found myself saying it was a beautiful spring instead of describing the very day the characters are acting in. I have struggled also with the tendency to describe characters as if I am afraid it’s my last chance to remember them rather than letting them be revealed in story. It probably boils down to my needing to be immersed in moments and use what has been my reliable talent of knowing what to show the reader.

So, knowing now that I want to tell the story from the point of view of the airplane seat flying away from it, and that I need to be in moments rather than gazing upon a five year stretch from a distance, how do I spare myself hearing my own melancholy voice? My solution was to approach myself from the point of view of others. Instead of the work being told by one voice, it is told by many, beginning with the jug-eared Greyhound employee who met me at the bus station when I first arrived. Trying to imagine how I looked to people that I encountered, and loved, gives me the same opportunity to be honest or delude myself that telling the story strictly from my own point of view does, but it forces me to consider how I appeared to others. And that brings an awareness that notions of self are composed of how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we imagine others see us. The exercise of considering all three of these has been the most satisfying part of working on this. It may be the part that has most resembled the mystery of a work of fiction being revealed to the writer.

Ultimately I think this project needs to be presented as a work of fiction, because of the major liberties taken in expressing the points of view of others. And to be satisfying to myself, it needs to read like a novel. It certainly will be a greater job of editing than what I am accustomed to– deciding what is important in a much bigger body of experience, like building a car from parts found in a vast junkyard.

Working on novels sometimes feels like Christmas morning when you wake early to take a leak– the muse has come during the night, and you can’t wait to see what she has brought you and your protagonist. This memoirish thing has felt more like a chore that will not go away, but it has been well received at writer’s groups, and I hope that the finished product has some resemblance to beauty.