Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Why I am Writing Sister Mysteries in Public
I wouldn’t dream of stripping my clothes off in public. So why in God’s name would I let my new and as-yet-unfinished novel, Sister Mysteries, dance naked in public? Why would I write my newest book (my third novel) in full view of readers, publishing as I go in installments, right here, on-line?
Why not stick to the tried-and-true routine of writing in private, a routine most serious writers I know follow, a routine I myself adhered to for nearly two decades as I produced my first two novels?
I could say that the traditional writing and publishing model just isn’t working anymore, that with fewer and fewer publishing outlets available, I’m just responding to changes in the industry. I could also say that I’m experimenting with electronic writing and publishing models for the future.
But the truth of the matter is that I am writing this new novel this way, on-line and in public, publishing it by installment on my blogs, because it’s just so much fun. I did indeed start it writing it this way as an experiment a year ago, but now, there is no way (at least with this book) that I’d go back to the “old-fashioned” model, spilling the novel onto paper in private, and then polishing up the prose until it sings with perfection, endlessly revising before sharing it with the world.
Ironically, writing a novel in this way, publishing it chapter by chapter, is itself kind of old-fashioned. Nineteenth century giants like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Wilkie Collins, and later, Joseph Conrad published novels in magazines by installment. It happens to be one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done as a writer.
It feels sometimes like I’m walking a tightrope in front of a waiting audience strung over a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. There’s no net underneath and a mistake, well, it’s a little nutty. But it’s great great fun.
It’s a little like setting off for California on back roads, on an old motorcycle, without a map. You just…do it. It’s a little crazy, but it’s got a questy-kind of feeling that gets me up in the morning. It makes my blood run fast. And since the book I’m writing takes place in California it makes that much more sense.
The real miracle of it all is that I am, at last, writing this sucker.
It’s been almost 17 years since I started writing the book. The writer’s block I’ve been fighting with this book has at times felt bigger than the Rock of Gibralter. But now I have 50 odd chapters and I can finally say, with some confidence, that I am getting close to finishing a first draft.
I have written at length about the difficulties I’ve faced getting this novel out.
Over the years, I have written more versions of this particular book than any human being should ever write. I have filled mountains and mountains of paper. I have thrown out thousands and thousands of pages. I have an entire crate of early drafts in my closet. I have burned several versions of this book in bonfire rituals in my backyard, and in my front yard too.
At one point, I consulted a hypnotist to try to stir up the right voice for the narrator. I toiled at two month-long writers’ colonies out in California trying to write this novel. I talked through the book with a variety of therapists over the years, including one at Harvard who, when she heard from me that I felt I was “living inside the character, a 19th century nun from California,” suggested in all seriousness that I consult a past-life regression therapist.
Writing this book, I survived a life-threatening bout of cancer. I raised three children writing this book. I have, at one point or another, entertained the possibility that I was I was going totally and utterly mad writing this book.
But two things I never lost sight of over the years: 1) I truly and completely loved this book, and 2) I knew that one way or another, I had to finish it.
The good news is, all of the mishagas seems now to be behind me. I am on home stretch. And what is so fascinating to me is that I honestly don’t think I would ever have been able to write this book if I had done it the “old-fashioned way.” No, as I tell my friend and fellow fiction writer Peg Woods, co-director of the Writing Program at UMass Amherst, this novel was “just waiting” for electronic publishing. I needed a blog, or a set of blogs, in order to get this time-travel murder mystery out of me.
Despite the fact the book takes place in the 1880s, it had to have an electronic conveyance to come to life.
This book needs to be, and will be at some point, an ibook, an electronic book with embedded hot links. The reason? It jumps all over the place, in time and space and in various voices. It will be beautiful and perfect on the Ipad, and that’s exactly where it is headed once it’s done.
In the end, it is just plain fun to write this way. I’ve never felt so free and easy when I sit down to follow my character. (Her latest, she’s escaped just before she’s headed to the gallows to hang for the crime she didn’t commit.)
I have several friends to thank for keeping me going over the years. First and foremost, Peg. For all the millions of words you’ve read and heard since 1995, for all the crazy phone calls, frantic emails and teary writing sessions in which my frustration boiled over, how can I ever say THANKS?
To my poet friend Suzanne Wise, who came to spend a month writing at the Millay Colony retreat up here in Austerlitz, N.Y. While she was here, we reconnected, and she asked me a simple question that helped to get me writing again. Oh Suzanne, you are indeed so WISE.
And thanks too to my dear friend and colleague Lori Cullen, who invited me exactly one year ago this month to be one of seven writers participating in a Writing in Motion challenge, sponsored by her blog at the Albany Times Union. The challenge was for each of us to finish a novel by the end of the year.
Well, so, I missed that particular December 31st, 2010 deadline, but considering how long it's taken me to write this book, and considering that poor Sister Renata has been waiting for me to "free" her from prison since 1883, it's not such a big deal.
Last but not least I want to thank my extraordinarily gifted artist friend Kellie Meisl, of Pittsfield, MA, for once again inspiring me with her extraordinarily beautiful collaged art. One of Kellie's images -- "Shattered Cups," appeared on the cover of my second novel, Seeing Red. And just a few weeks ago, when I saw her newest goddess collage, one she calls "Flow," I decided that her art once again spoke directly to my characters! Kellie's magical artwork, which is inspired by waking and night dreams, can be seen on her website.
For those of you who are inclined to take a look at the novel, you should know that it is actually two books in one. There is the book called Sister Mysteries and there is the inner book called Castenata. Why this novel has two names and two formats in one is a post for another day.
The story in a nutshell is this: it's is a time-travel murder mystery about a nun, Sister Renata, who is convicted of killing her cousin, Antonie, by slicing his throat. The nun’s diary –- she swears her innocence -- alternates with highly-erotic tales in which Renata magically transforms from a respectable and God-fearing Dominican novitiate into a seductive flamenco dancer who wears a flaming red dress.
Yeah, ok, it sounds a bit crazy, I agree. Please don’t ask me why I am writing this particularly nutty story. I could say it has something to do with growing up Catholic. But in the end, I cannot possibly explain where the inspiration came from. As I tell my students, writers don’t choose their stories. The stories come to us, the best tales and characters, do in a very real way, choose us. Sometimes I think of myself like a human antenna, picking up narratives that happen to be free-floating through the universe.
Maybe in the next post I’ll try to explain that!