I’ve often talked here about the wonderful burdens of possessing a writer’s mind, about the challenges and discoveries I make because I don’t have that “off” button I often covet. Like a lot of writers and artists, I carry my projects around in my thoughts all day, in all things that I do, looking for inspiration both inside and outside of my own head. Just a few weeks ago, I had one of those funny moments of divine inspiration when I was incredibly grateful to have a non-functioning “off” button. I was taking the long way home after seeing from afar that the Ballard Bridge was down to one lane (such a situation is utter calamity—even with all lanes open and no boats in sight, the Ballard Bridge is an inefficient nuisance at best) and then spaced out, missed my turn, and had to take the double-long way home.
As I drove, I noticed that the car in front of me had a license plate holder that read “I’m not laughing at you—I’m listening to Car Talk on NPR.” I thought this was a funny coincidence, as “Car Talk” happens to be one of my favorite radio programs and was—without a single doubt—my father’s absolute favorite. I changed lanes to turn left, and saw that the car turning left in front of me had its own vanity license plate holder that read, “My other ride is the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701,” a nod to my father’s and my favorite show, Star Trek. This was no longer a coincidence—this was my dad saying hello. I found myself actually saying aloud to my father, and mostly to myself, “OK. I’m paying attention now.” As if merely waiting for its cue, right at that moment, a magnificent breakthrough of epic plot proportions waltzed into my head fully formed. In those extra five or seven minutes in the car, with a little help from my dad, I managed to tie together all the pieces that I previously had been unable to connect for a project I’m not even actively working on right now. Indeed, keeping my creative brain open to any and all ideas—no matter how inconvenient or untimely—really does pay off.
I’ve been trying to work on one novel while making plans for another throughout the past year or so, and I’m constantly surprised by what comes up in the act of juggling. When I was still in college, a firmly-declared English major but not yet a writer, I never thought I’d have the mind—or the ambition–I’d need to do something as grandiose as write a book. But then I wrote my memoir, and, eight years later, I have a whole book that I wrote all on my own. I even wrote an entire collection of poetry in that time, to boot. Of course poetry, however, has always been a labor of love and so the process of piecing together a collection of my work seemed far less intimidating and arduous than many of my other projects have proven to be.
After I finished the memoir, I didn’t think I’d ever have the mind or the motivation I’d need to write a full-length prose novel. And lo and behold, I’m 21 chapters into not just a mere novel that can stand on its own, but the first installment of a three- and possibly/probably four-part series. I certainly, definitely never thought I’d write something as complex and convoluted as a trilogy. And then I absolutely never dreamed I’d have it in me to work on more than one project at a time. Enter my snowpocalypse novel. Recently, I’ve found myself actively working on not just the trilogy, not just my side poetry projects, not just the literary magazine I edit and not just my full-time day job, but also a massively ambitious story idea that is sure to be my magnum opus.
Sure, I may not create new work or revise bits of each project each day, but neither do I ever give myself complete respite from either work. They are both ever on my thoughts, churning and bubbling and developing new limbs inside the warm and fruitful womb of my brain. Sometimes this process is fun and exciting, other times tedious and even emotionally painful. I have created all these characters to tell their story, and my story, and to say all the important things that need to be said about the world. But sometimes, to that end I must put my darlings, my brainchildren—my babies–through any number of terrible and traumatic things.
I’ve learned that, as cognitively or emotionally dissonant as it often feels, there are times when I need to name and rename my characters, make them feel horrible or go through horrible things or do horrible things to the people and world around them, hurt them, kill them, make them kill other people. If it serves the story, it must go into the book. Even if I feel funny, guilty, or downright awful about it.
The truth is that I often feel as though I’ve had to live through some major shit in order to have some major shit to write about; perhaps it is just as simple for my characters. My mom once asked me why I couldn’t just let a certain character live peacefully on in romantic bliss for all eternity, why I couldn’t just write a happy ending to my story. I couldn’t write that happy ending because happy endings don’t always make such a profound statement or make us think, even if they are pleasant to read. I couldn’t write that happy ending for my character because that wasn’t her path. As if she were a real, live human being, I respect her path enough to write it truthfully. We so rarely receive happy endings in real life, and it would do me much good as a writer to deny my characters the lessons they must learn.
Ask me again next week and I might have a different response, but right now, today, looking down the barrel of a behemoth chapter that needs to be written for one book, a new plot structure for another, and a whole mess of slush pile submissions to weed through, I am infinitely grateful that my creative mind never really shuts off, not even for a moment.