”I am writing a novel.”
This is what I say to someone who responds to my self-identification as a writer: “Oh! What are you writing?”
The other, more frequent and annoying, question is: “what have you published?”, as if one cannot be a writer unless one’s writing has been vetted and approved by some authority—or at least the sensitive writer can infer this.
To take care of the second question I have self-published a book of 80 pages containing short writings of the last 20 years or so—Short Stuff: Stories, Poems, Memoirs & Essays. I deem myself as the authority in this instance.
So now I can devote more focused attention to “my novel.”
As the more frequent reader of this blog knows, I am a member of the Stockholm Writers Group, a 20-year-old voluntary association of native English speakers in and around Stockholm, Sweden. Currently, most members are in varying stages of writing a novel, although any writing form is OK for us to critique and encourage. As the least experienced writer in the group I have many examples to guide me in the development of my own novel. Also, there are many books, workshops and articles available telling us how to address the various elements of any writing: character, plot, point of view, voice, setting, rhythm, etc.
There is a natural tension between what wants to flow, unfettered, from the creative center of the writer, and all the writing rules and guidelines, some of which are subjective and conditional, or even dated.
I have written a sufficient number of words for my novel to create a book, but I have not yet engaged in the discipline of putting it all together in such a way that someone might want to read it, much less publish it.
So here I sit, chafing at the rules and taking a detour to read (for the second time) a book written in an unusual way but which has been successful. This is Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.
This book is seen by most reviewers, including me, as 13 short stories all linked by the presence or mention of the main character, Olive Kitteridge. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a best seller despite some rather negative reviews, especially as regards its form. I like its form; it gives me the courage to write similarly or at least differently from the norm, since I already had begun to do so, willy-nilly. I have a lot of interesting characters all of whom are linked to a central figure who undergoes a significant transformation.
When I was in my 20s I devoured the writings of Henry James and fantasized about writing similarly. Now, his writings are not much popular outside the college classroom and, in any case, I do not have James’s character and background. I must write from who I am and from where I’ve been.
In Olive Kitteridge, the time sense is not constant, but not confusing. We begin in the in present, go quickly to the past, and then work back to the present in the first chapter. Throughout the book the unknown, unidentified narrator “looks over the shoulder” of the various characters, but also presents an omniscient overview, like a movie camera moving in and out of the setting. We are sometimes over the shoulder of one character, then immediate over the shoulder of another. Henry James did not do this. The current rules of writing do not advocate such variability, as far as I’ve seen.
It is a dilemma. I want to write the way that is natural to me, and with a discipline that does not make me unhappy. Yet, I do want others to read my writing. Their expectations must be met; but I resist writing for an identified market, or imaginary groupings of people. Perhaps I am writing for people with no expectations.
My current audience is, and may remain, the members of the Stockholm Writers Group (SWG). Three days from the writing of this essay or memoir, on Wednesday evening, 6 April 2011, eighteen more pages of my novel will be critiqued by SWG, along with a similar number pages of a colleague’s almost completed novel.
I do like this feeling of going on an adventure, of beginning something without knowing its outcome. As I tell my friends and acquaintances, I now travel through life with few expectations. This way, there are few disappointments and often some nice surprises.
See you along the way…?