Nearly two years ago, I was talking on the phone with my older sister Emily, who lives in Colorado. Somehow the topic of my long-abandoned novel came up. I confessed to her that even though I was 29 and ought to have long-ago outgrown the story and characters that had originated in my 12-year-old brain, the romantic, Anne-Shirley-and-Jo-March part of my writer’s soul was still haunted by a sense of incompleteness. I still felt prickles of unease about that latest, last draft, unfinished and abandoned by 19-year-old me.
“Then finish it!” said Emily.
“But it’s immature and parts of the plot are preposterous!”
“So? Do it for fun! String it all together with a bunch of deus ex machina and finish it!”
I decided to take her advice. I told myself it would be like a writing exercise– a way of sneaking back into the fiction writing world. It would just be for fun– a way to reconnect with my old writing self, an escape from the every day routine of diapers and snacks and menu planning and play-dates. It wouldn’t be a proper novel, and nobody but Emily and me would ever read it.
I can’t remember exactly how long this casual attitude lasted– a few weeks, maybe? A month? Because I began to write– and it was as though the story and the characters were like Lumiere and all the castle inhabitants from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. “Ten years we’ve been rusting/needing so much more than dusting… flabby, fat, and lazy, you walk in and up-sa-daisy!” The novel burst to life again and the cast began bustling in and out, demanding attention, demanding makeovers, demanding to be understood as grown-up characters. The convoluted politics of the plot begged to be simplified, to allow the relationships among the characters to take center stage. Before I knew it I was mentally and emotionally sunk into what had been supposed to be a “just-for-fun” writing experience. The whole process was one of the tension of trying to write an entertaining, well-written young adult novel while honoring the story’s origins as a twelve-year-old’s tale about a princess, a mysterious wanderer*, a hopelessly romantic prince, a dashing debonair king, an emotionally-distant queenly mother, and an evil villain trying to take over the world.
I feel like I succeeded. There are things about the finished novel that would not be there if it were not for my twelve year old self and her dreams of romance and adventure. At the same time, I feel a satisfaction in having transformed those original archetypes into flesh-and-blood characters. It was time for my story to grow up, and I’m proud at having guided it through that long, often painful process.
*I called him a “gypsy” when I was twelve. I had fallen in love with the idea of gypsies as people who lead a wandering lifestyle when I read Lloyd Alexander’s book Gypsy Rizka. But I had no knowledge of the Romani people and their oppression, and no way of knowing that the word “gypsy” can be very offensive to this persecuted ethnic minority.