A filmmaker friend of mine recently described the completion of one of her films, and her attempts to begin the next project, as something akin to a divorce. “The world as you know it is gone,” she said, “And you have to start all over again.” This applies to finishing a book as well. For me, fictional characters — either in my own work or in the work of others — are as real and lasting as the people they’re fashioned from, and I say my goodbyes to them at the end of reading or writing a novel with a tremendous sense of loss.
More painful, however, than separating from one of your characters, is the prospect of creating a new one from scratch. There’s a clear recipe for making a real live human being, but there’s no such blueprint for a person who lives and breathes solely on the page. The alchemy of dreaming up an Emma Bovary or a Harry Potter is deeply mysterious, something that has to be teased out of the writer’s psyche over time, with a great deal of patience and forbearance. For many of us, the process starts with hearing the voice of the character, as he or she sails toward us out of the fog of our unconscious. None of this is easy to quantify, or describe, but you know when it’s not happening, and the fog remains still and impenetrable.
Many authors talk about the difficulty of writing their second novel, or getting to that place where the next story begins to flow. As Anne Lamott points out in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “The beginnings of a second and third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published, and false starts and terror because you now have to prove yourself again.” I certainly had my share of false starts and terror after the writing of The Devil’s Chimney. I’d been listening to the profane, irreverent voice of my narrator, Connie, for so long that I could hardly imagine writing in another idiom. Since the novel was well-received, it felt a little frightening to leave behind what had worked before and to venture into the unknown. In the beginning, I clung to Connie’s deaf sister, Gerda, and began writing about her and her children.
On a family trip to South Africa, I visited Worcester’s De la Bat School for the Deaf and interviewed several teachers there, and back in New York City, I started taking a course in American Sign Language. I read several memoirs written by the hearing children of deaf parents and decided that the book was going explore that world, and tell the story of a South African woman who grew up being her motherâ€™s ears. Iâ€™m not sure whether or not it was the difficulty I experienced trying to learn how to sign (being good at languages is absolutely no help in this regard), or whether I got lost trying to figure out the differences between American Sign Language and South African Sign Language, and then how to describe this non-verbal method of communication in words, but I began to feel defeated, frustrated and confused. I had the fragment of a chapter written in the voice of Gerda’s daughter which felt as if it was going nowhere. And then somehow, Gerda’s family doctor showed up, a brusque, Jewish man who was short and bossy and had a lot to say for himself, and slowly Harry Klein — who would even eventually guide me through the The Rowing Lesson — came to life.
I spent years listening to Harry, with his non sequiturs, his playful use of language, his fierce love for his country and its people. I loved him, hated him, was occasionally baffled by him. By the time we parted (on good terms, by the way), I was spent. What added to the intensity — and difficulty — of the writing process, was that Harry was modeled on my late father, a country doctor in Worcester, and that this conversation with Harry, my fictional character, was also a conversation with my father, Gerald Landsman, who died just days after I found out I was pregnant with my second child. (In one jam-packed year, I lost my father, published my first novel, and gave birth to my son.)
The decade between the publication of The Devil’s Chimney and The Rowing Lesson was a complicated mix of grieving, joy, motherhood, literary creation. Many times, I berated myself for not writing faster, for getting swallowed up by the demands of my home life, for every minute I spent away from my desk. I couldn’t help noticing the writers who had published first novels when I did, and had now published second and third novels. Others, thankfully, took just as long if not longer. Was I afflicted with the curse of the second novel? I often asked myself. If so, what was the best way to undo the spell? In the end, I learned that time was not my enemy, but my ally. Everything I experienced in those ten years as a daughter, mother, wife and writer became the stock in which the story simmered. When I held my children close, feeling overpowering love for them wash over me, I understood Harry a little bit better, and his crippling inability to express what was in his heart for fear it would break. In life, spending the time and effort getting to know someone well often yields unexpected rewards. The same is true in fiction. As you live with your characters, they reveal themselves to you in ever-deepening ways.
This sanguine perspective can be hard to maintain in the twenty-first century, where speed is of the essence, where we take for granted our ability to communicate instantly with people all over the globe. Writing a novel is taking a step back, hearing the beat of an older, slower drum, and realizing that great works of literature — whether written in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia, Australia — were written by men and women who observed, listened, wrote and rewrote stories they were compelled to tell. These books didn’t appear in the blink of an eye. They were always the result of time, effort and immense concentration. It’s always helpful to remember this, and to learn from the lives of writers who came before, and whose work still resonates today. For sustenance, I read and reread the work of Virginia Woolf, who, in A Room of One’s Own, had this to say about how hard it is to write well: “Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down.” Or Eudora Welty, on the subject of her own life in One Writer’s Beginnings: “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Just as I’m inspired by the past, I find myself drawing comfort from the writers I know. I have the great good fortune to work at the Writers Room, a communal writing space in downtown Manhattan. I write in the silent company of others, in a big, open space much like a newsroom without noise. And it is here that I often draw solace from the writing practices of all kinds of writers. It’s helpful to see that writers nap, take frequent breaks, stare out the window, engage in on-line procrastination. They also have bursts of sustained activity, and sometimes the room is alive with the muted clickety-clicking of several computers at once. There are four people at every workstation, separated by dividers, so we work turned away from each other. For a respite, people gravitate to the kitchen which is separated from the main space by a door. The quiet rule no longer applies there, and conversations often begin with the sentence, “What are you working on?” There’s always someone who has wrestled with the same difficulties you have, who has spent hours searching for a missing word, idea, plot-line, character. These conversations are not long, but they’re often fruitful. On a shelf nearby, are two jars filled with pretzels and candy and I often find myself going back to work munching on a pretzel and heartened by someone else’s story.
I wrote both my novels at the Writers Room, and now, after the publication of The Rowing Lesson, I find myself looking down the barrel of the third, facing my demons in the same work environment, with more or less the same cast of writers sitting at their desks, on the edges of my peripheral vision. As with The Devil’s Chimney, the critical reception to The Rowing Lesson has been very positive, which has brought on its own stresses and anxieties along with the thrill that people have responded well to a story that was so close to my heart. Once again, I’m fearful of leaving behind what I know, the voice I grew accustomed to, the milieu I created. The world as I’ve known it has been disassembled, and I have to build a new one, without directions or a map. Over and over again, I’ve heard, “Hope it doesn’t take you ten years to write the next book” from interviewers, reviewers, editors, friends and family.
What do you do when you feel the pressure of others’ expectations, and your own? When those demanding inner voices threaten to strangle your creativity, paralyze you? The only way to hear the spirit calling to you from the fog is to write towards it, to throw a rope made of words into the mist, hoping it will catch onto something, take hold. And you have to do this joyfully, knowing that you’re about to go on a breathtaking new adventure, to find an unknown continent within yourself. As difficult and lonely as the journey may sometimes be, you have those good writing days to sustain you, when everything beyond the page evaporates, and you live right inside your narrative, a fragile, shiny new world no one has ever seen before.
Here’s Landsman reading an excerpt from The Rowing Lesson: