Five years ago, my friend Michelle called to tell me she was driving the turnpike back to Toledo from the Cleveland area. While driving, she saw an Amish girl sitting in the passenger seat of a passing car, and she wondered why. Then, she told me to write that story, the story of the Amish girl driving on the turnpike. I thought about that Amish girl for months. Who was she? What was she doing? Michelle had no idea what she had started up in my mind. It was the beginnings of what would become my first completed novel.
Of course, I wouldn't write a word of it for another year, when, upon finishing my Masters in Literature, I would find myself mostly unemployed, save for a part time adjuncting gig two to three times a week that was almost an hour away. I was not meant to have a literature degree. I loved reading and still do, but I didn't enjoy tearing a great work of literature apart to stare at possible meanings the writer likely never considered. I hated analyzing a poem one word at a time. I wanted to appreciate as a whole. I didn't want to examine and dissect like some literary surgeon.
More than that, I wanted to create. This was no small feat with a kindergartener to provide and care for, so I'd set small goals, writing between nine and noon, before he got home. My dear friend Andrea gave me prompts and I would have a day to a week to write up a story based on whatever came into her head and send it back to her. It was enough to keep me in practice and it gave me a small portfolio with which to apply for an MFA. In one of these prompts was the beginnings of the Amish turnpike rider. I got the first page or two of another two stories based on a prompt requesting me to write a story entitled "Escar-ago-go." Inspiration comes from many places.
I found out I got into my MFA program a few months after a lot of heartache and grief entered my life. As a teacher, I became afraid of my own students. The world stopped making sense. It seemed hostile suddenly and I wrote to find some sort of answer. I wrote to keep the world at bay, and so, we moved. I started my program, took the bits that seemed to be leading somewhere, and fleshed them out into stories, connected with one common thread. A novel but without having to write it as a whole. I wrote it in segments, separate but somehow they started to connect, all of them circling the same themes: my fears, my confusion, and oddly, a lot of snails.
I finished one draft of each story, twelve in all. Then I revised them once, twice, a third time. I presented them as my thesis, got approved for graduation. I revised them again. And then again. Last night, exactly 17 hours ago, I finished it. My book is done, and all the heartache that went into making it, well, it might be healed a little. The world is still a scary place, but there's good in it too.
Did I need to write a novel to understand that? I'm not sure, but it feels pretty great, accomplishing it. It might never amount to more, and that might be okay. Of course, if it ends up published, all the better.
I just finished reading a novel-in-stories that one of my professors said reminded her of my book. She thought I'd benefit from reading it and I think she was right. The book is "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout. Ms. Strout actually visited my school a year ago and I'm sorry now that I was not able to attend (parental obligations come first). I got out of Olive that same feeling that I have now post-book, that the world doesn't make sense but is no less wonderful because of this. Horrible things happen. Life gets in the way and runs out before you notice it's passing you by. But the little moments, they matter. The triumphs matter. Five years ago, I thought about writing a story and this morning, I had a finished novel.
"It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet."