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. [Read more…]