Each time Ann Patchett writes a novel, she sets a fresh challenge that will ensure her growth as a writer. At the time she said this—2002—she was explaining her decision to assemble a group of characters that must overcome a peril, even though none of them can speak the same language. That novel became the stirring New York Times bestseller Bel Canto, in which a group of ambassadors gathered in the home of a South American dignitary are held captive during a coup.
The notion of setting a fresh challenge stuck with me, since one of the reasons I find novel writing so appealing is the way it encourages me to engage in lifelong learning and growth. When starting on my current work-in-progress, I challenged myself to write a story in which a secondary character’s presence is felt on every page, even though she doesn’t arrive on scene until the very end.
It worked until it didn’t. After several “so close” passes from publishers, last month I pulled the project to revise. My upcoming one-week residency would provide the perfect opportunity to enact my revision plan, I thought.
Three days in, it was clear I had lost my way.
Thank goodness my friend Tori was on hand to reflect upon my tale of literary woe. She said she thought the only solution was to bring the character on scene so she could drive the conflict. I reminded her that originally, the character’s absence was the conflict. Tori replied, “And thinking that way prompted this whole beautiful novel. But maybe it’s time to let that notion go.”
I saw the truth in this because I’d heard this advice before.
When I was an undergraduate at Miami University (OH), the distinguished choreographer Phyllis Lamhut came to work with our dance company. A lit cigarette dangled from her lips—in the dance studio!— while she watched our work. After barking out a harsh critique of my graduate assistant’s piece, whose work I adored, it was time to show her mine.
I immediately regretted performing in my own piece, which gave her two ways to find me incompetent. My knees shook as the music began. The concept I was playing with was about space as a lone dancer’s partner (a concept I would revisit in my debut novel, The Art of Falling). As I moved, I could feel the heat of Lamhut’s glare on my skin.
Afterward, she asked me one question. “Why did you pick this music?” I told her it was my original inspiration. I was a biology major, and listening to “A Very Cellular Song” by The Incredible String Band had reminded me of the way cytoplasmic pressures within an amoeba propelled its movement, an effect I tried to recreate. The slow waltz tempo provided my movement’s rhythmic structure.
Lamhut walked over to the record player (yes—this was the 70s) and replaced my music with a piece by John Cage (something similar to this). Rather than provide a melody, the random pings and pops seemed to define the silence—the space—within the music. She told me to repeat my performance to this soundscape, keeping the original rhythm in my mind as I moved.
The increased power of the piece raised the hair on my arms. When I finished, the other dancers burst into spontaneous applause. That’s when Lamhut said, “There often comes a time when you need to let go of your original inspiration.”
During my residency at North Carolina’s Weymouth Center for the Arts last week, as I struggled to wrestle down this story, I felt mad creative skills echo around me: the spirits of former guests F. Scott Fitzgerald and his storied editor Max Perkins; the memory of Ann Patchett’s personal challenge facing off against advice carried forward from crusty Phyllis Lamhut; a conversation between Tori and me informing the ongoing conversation between my inner writer and inner editor.
My original inspiration was no longer serving me. It was time to thank it for getting me this far—and let it go.
I threw out my first three days’ work and barreled forward during the final three days of my residency, impelled by the new energy my formerly-in-absence character brought to the work.
The time for writing from my prompt was over. My work-in-progress was ready to grow into its fullness.
Have you ever had to let your original inspiration go, in order to let your work evolve? Have you ever had to screw up the courage to jettison work that led you into a blind alley, only to save it by retracing your missteps? Let’s talk about lessons learned from writing gone wrong.
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