Recently I got to sit down and chat craft with my high school creative writing teacher. We have been sharing work in the past year, and my children are enthralled by her simple, heartfelt and other-worldly stories of the Moon Darlings. She conveys meaning with a sparse prose, ethereal imagery and language that hints of another place while deeply tethering the reader to the characters.
She listened to me explain what I have been working on this summer, a revisiting of a dual narrator novel that explores the relationship between two women on either side of a man. I rambled on with a plot summary, and explained it as a study on natural beauty and its merit, and the moral compass, and undoing the damage of the past and ... I paused for a breath.
Janna nodded. She then said diplomatically, "I think you would do a very good job writing for a television series. Something complex and intricate, that spins out for many seasons. I'm not sure a novel is the right medium for this kind of writing."
Basically, she said again what an agent who was considering CHOSEN told me years ago in a thick, gravelly Brooklyn accent, "You don't got to be so tricky, doll!"
Janna went on to say that perhaps, this is the outcome of me knowing that I am talented--see all these balls I can keep in the air!--and intrinsically insecure about the actual merit of what I have to say. A 'don't mind the man behind the curtain, now look over here! she's about to get on another plane/in bed with another man/wreck her life in a new way!' Maybe I'm afraid my story doesn't stand on its own, in the same kind of beautifully simple voice that carries Janna's stories, so I heap on layers, and plot twists and funny side scenes, quirky characters, sex scenes and dredge up some backstory.
I was reminded of my quilting. I don't actually know how to quilt, and I'm not particularly interested in learning. I don't want to be hemmed in by the rules of quilting, don't want to fuss with ironing interfacing to fabrics that don't have the same amount of give or pin before I sew every little bit. I want freedom to use anything I like, slash up and incorporate a fabulous thrift store find, whether or not it will hold up to a washing machine. Because of this, I rely on the medium of the crazy quilt, where my shortcomings and lack of quilting skill can be covered up with another overlap, another layer, some top stitching or embroidery. In the end, I hope that the person looking at the quilt will see the beauty in the midst of the chaos, because I do.
(You can read about my daughter's Incentive Quilt, here.)
Janna's writing advice: step back from this rolicking, wild, plot-heavy story. Tone down the neurotic characters I have woven. Write a scene from this story in simple prose, and see if the heart is there. There is a reason I am stalled out--see if this is why. I'm excited to try. She may be on to something that explains why I keep circling this story, never feeling like I understand the essence of it.
And on the other hand, I'm not sure that my methodology is totally problematic. Instead, perhaps it is simply my style? There are things I am good at in both mediums. It's not that I'm hasty or sloppy or can't write/sew something beautiful. I hand-embroidered thirteen painted ponies for Piper's quilt, with carefully blanket-stitched edges and flowing, colorful manes and tails, and they're lovely. I can craft dialog that rings true while conveying character and moving plot along all at once. I can seamlessly incorporate elements of pop culture that lend verisimilitude to my work.
I don't only crazy quilt because I'm too lazy to iron before I sew--I do it because I am attracted to this style more than perfectly symmetrical calico stars. I feel inspired by the beauty in layering and odd angles and textures and riotous colors. I am drawn to Murano glass, and cherish J's aunt's miniature layered collages. One of my favorite descriptions of our home was 'Pee Wee's Playhouse Grows Up' because of the bright colors and ecclectic mix of styles that somehow ... work.
Maybe this is true of my writing too. I cringe every time I feel myself edited towards chicklit, pat or formulaic writing. I demand that my characters be messily three-dimensional, with ugly, wobbly, secret underbellies and defining backstories and childhood friends and ex-boyfriends and snarky coworkers and things they do when they think nobody is looking. Maybe I write this way because I am attracted to the beautiful chaos of real life?
I'll let you know how it goes this week.