Please welcome back Molly Best Tinsley to Writer Unboxed. In a moment of sanity, Molly decided twenty years of teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy was enough. She resigned, moved west, and now writes full time in Ashland, Oregon. Her fiction has earned two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships and her story collection, Throwing Knives, won the Oregon Book Award. She has explored the diverse possibilities of narrative in a spy thriller, Broken Angels, a memoir, Entering the Blue Stone, and most recently, the middle-grade adventure Behind the Waterfall. Peel back the skin of genre, and the same energy drives them all.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, Molly is here in a “bewildered and vulnerable state” to share a love letter to her novel-in-progress.
Over the years, inklings have built to this truth: when I’m not engaged with a writing project, I feel like I’m wandering around in a lonely place between widow and orphan—writing nourishes and defines me just as much as do my friends and loved ones. These days, I’m acutely aware of the flip side: my untitled novel-in-progress is fickle, frustrating, secretive, and generally difficult. Think of what follows as my way of understanding and surviving its challenges.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
The creative process is seductive. Though it consumes huge amounts of time and energy, it holds out a promise of bliss, completion. Not always, but often enough, we look upon our transformations of darkness to light, chaos to order, pain to beauty, and we are glad. It’s no wonder spouses, lovers, children, get jealous of the hours we spend face-to-face with the screen, fingers fondling the keyboard. The bond between the writer and her work has the potential electricity of an intimate human relationship. And the soul-scouring challenges.
I’m in the muddled middle of a novel-in-progress. I’ll call it “Fifty Shades of Ambivalence” because we’ve been together now for a couple years, and it still refuses to tell me its real name.
It introduced itself as a short story immediately following a car accident. Friends tried to assure me that there was nothing I could have done to prevent my twilight collision with a large deer, but I knew I’d been mesmerized at the time by a British baritone reading John le Carre on CD, and I brooded over the possibility that I’d been partly at fault.
In my bewildered and vulnerable state, smoothing this painful debacle into narrative seemed to offer solace. If it didn’t clear up the confusion around what had actually happened, at least I’d be doing something creative—art would supplant life and thereby heal it.
The good news is a good chunk of the story spilled out in two sittings—a weekend fling. I had a fabulous time. Rereading what I’d written, I found words and expressions I didn’t realize I knew or have never used before in my life. The bad news: once I’d satisfied my emotional need, had my fun, I couldn’t end it. I tried for days, weeks, to contrive a nice epiphany and taper things off, with no success. Finally I had to realize that the story had designs on something more long-term, like a novel, maybe even a novel with complicated depths. I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to commit to that.
We embarked on what’s become a routine of well-intentioned but often uncomfortable dates. I don’t know where things are going. I worry, what will other people think? Do I really want to show up in public with this story? Sure, there are flashes of spontaneous delight—mostly when I open a sentence into a scene and discover an unexpected treasure. But lacking a plan and riddled with doubts, I feel like I’m slogging through both narrative time and real at-the-keyboard time.
Oddly, I still look forward to our hours together. And I remember them with warmth, even desire, when I’m busy doing something else. Sometimes, driving on the freeway, a sort of teaser-thought makes me gasp with delight and almost run off the road. Oh, to be alone in my room with my story! But once I’m actually there—in real time, alone in my room with the story—I get this stomach-sinking loneliness that verges on revulsion.
I wish I could say that after two years of this roller-coaster, I can see the aha! light just up ahead, feel the reassuring pull of a clean denouement. But no, the story keeps tempting me to try things outside my comfort zone, things that break with form and decorum, and I resist and we bargain and finally compromise. I feel locked in a love-hate relationship, but sense this work may feel the same way.
Notice I’m not calling it my work, because the one thing it keeps teaching is that writing is not all about me. There aren’t just my needs in this enterprise; there are the needs of this text that is trying to get written through me.
Today I’d like to send the story this.
Dear Valentine, in all your shades: That initial burst of inspiration was like love at first sight. The writing, and bonding, seemed effortless, transformative. But now with the glow fading, the flow dwindled to a trickle, our relationship’s become hard work. And I’ve got trust issues. I wonder about our time—should I be spending it on other things? But what other things? When my spirits dip too low, the disorienting doubts multiply: is this the wrong story? What if it winds up going nowhere? What if I invest all this energy and have nothing to show for it?
Nevertheless . . . as I do with my human friends, I will try to keep listening without preconceptions and projections to the words you flash across my screen. Are they encoded with secret pleas? Can I be open, flexible, responsive, and yes, loving to their needs? I want you to know that I know that creativity, like love, has ups and downs. There are still those days when you seem to read my mind, or maybe it’s me reading yours. And just as I wouldn’t dump a friend during the rough patches, I will not dump you. We are in this together for the long haul.
What would you pen in a letter to your WIP? Do you have roller coaster moments? Ups and downs? After love at first sight, do you suffer doubts?