On Being Derailed

A few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I went to a party at my neighbors’ house. I didn’t know any neighbors beyond hellos, and I went to this gathering alone. My husband was at home, putting our two-year-old to bed. I liked the hosts, their warmth, their humor. The bookshelves in their living room were full of novels. On a top shelf was the book I was currently reading: they were people who bought literary novels in hardback. When the host asked after my own writing, I admitted I was working on a novel. This was sort of true and sort of not. In the immediate aftermath of the election, all I found myself writing were angry missives to Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, letters to the mayor, protest signs.

My neighbor asked the obvious question: what is your novel about?

Many writers dislike this question, even when the person asking is well meaning and interested. Pinning down a narrative arc, or a theme, can become an obstacle to filling blank pages or shaping a draft. All the best bits of my own writing emerge out of a messy muck. But, I wasn’t hesitating because muck is hard to summarize.

I really didn’t know what my novel was about. For a moment, I couldn’t remember it at all. Not one character, not one scene.

Among my writer friends, in those first days after the 2016 election, a quotation attributed to Toni Morrison circulated on Facebook. In truth, while Morrison shared these words with the world in an essay for The Nation, they come from a conversation she had with a friend. The re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 had stalled Morrison, and when she confessed as much to her friend, the friend said: “[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” That Toni Morrison took this advice to heart is something we should all be grateful for. Now these words have become a rallying cry for everyone. Jennifer Lopez shared this quotation at the Grammys. Weeks later, I listened as a doctor read the second sentence at a demonstration in support of the ACA, and now the context of art-making had disappeared completely.

Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe.” The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th 2008.

These words resonated so widely, beyond even the circle of artists for whom they are presumably most relevant, because they made us feel good, and the degree to which everyone, including me, wanted to believe, made me suspicious. (The full essay makes a more complex argument than the quoted lines convey, and it’s well worth reading—no surprise there!)

It really didn’t seem like working on my messy novel draft was the most important thing I could be doing with what little time I had. I could take action in ways that would have a direct impact on my local community. Why not do that? And so I plunged into other pursuits. An acquaintance decided to run for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and I became increasingly involved in her campaign, first as a volunteer, then as her finance director. At the last minute, I ran for local office myself, for a position as a committee person, and I won my election.

I wrote, too, but not my novel. I focused on smaller projects. I finished some languishing short stories and wrote a personal essay that may or may not ever see the light of day. My novel lingered in the background, a large file hanging out on my computer. No one was waiting for me to finish it.

I’m still working on short stories, but I’m also making forays into the novel again. What’s happening in the world is as much an emergency as ever, so I can’t really justify tuning it out in order to think about imaginary people. Yet, I am. I feel I must. Returning to my old draft has involved making drastic changes, including cutting a lot of material. Whatever this project ends up being will differ radically from what I might have written had I kept going in 2016. I can never know for sure that the version I’m working on now is the better one, but I’m invested in the messy muck of it again, hoping to coax some blooms out of its mud.