One of my coaching clients is in an exciting and expansive place with her novel after years of feeling stuck. She has such wonderful insights, I asked her if she’d be willing to describe what’s working so well for her in a guest post. I’m honored and delighted to introduce you to Susan Gaines Sevilla, novelist in the making.
I have been working on a novel for a dozen years and although I’ve all but abandoned it more times than I can count, it will not let me go.
So this winter, thanks to the guidance of Rosanne and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, I have re-dreamed, re-imagined and reorganized the book, using stacks of index cards. Some semblance of my book now exists, from beginning to end, in a multicolored stack of cards. It is something to hold. It has substance and weight.
The multicolored stack sits like a magnificent bud, ready to bloom across and beyond my desk, where my daughter’s little bed once was. This is the room where small creatures became full-sized humans with lives of their own; a room for babies and dreams that grow up.
Abandoning My Novel, Abandoning Myself
For years, I avoided this little dormered room that was supposed to be my writing space. On rare occasions, I would work on the novel, writing furiously for a time, then shelve it for a longer time, sometimes years. It haunted me, sitting there in a box in the corner of my office. I became adept at ignoring it. I tried to drown out its call with my excuses – “I’m taking care of the kids, the house, I’m a freelance journalist (that’s writing, at least, right?)”
But its cry of abandonment soon reached me in other parts of the house, in other moments of my day, when I was teaching or reading. My avoidance began to appear as jealousy and irritability, like someone who’s been celibate for far too long. I blamed my restlessness (unfairly) on my marriage or focused on how Metro magazine had dropped my popular Personal Gaines column. Even with a full life, I wondered what was missing and I secretly hoped that by just sitting there, someone would discover me.
I silently disparaged other writers. “Well, of course, he published a novel; he had a wife to take care of the kids and do the laundry.” Or, “She’s probably a late-night person and doesn’t need much sleep, so she wrote at night. I can’t do that.” After a time, I even caught myself saying, contrary to what I’d believed all my life, “Maybe my life could be complete even if I never finished writing a book. Maybe that’s a youthful, unrealistic dream I must let go of.”
Reclaiming My Novel, Reclaiming Myself
That’s when a louder, deeper voice emerged: I am not done with this book. My life won’t be complete if I abandon it now.
But how? I no longer knew what I had in that box. I had no idea really how to reenter the world of my novel. When Rosanne told me I could do it with a commitment of 15 minutes a day, I thought, “I can do that!” Then, “No way can I actually write a novel that way.” She assured me I could and I would.
So I did what Rosanne told me to do. I am nothing if not a good student and follower of directions. I figure if I’m paying someone to tell me how to get this done, I better do it. So I did it. I’m doing it. Miracles happened along the way. Because I valued my work simply by paying someone to keep me on track, I suddenly found space in my schedule that was previously occupied. I pruned and reset my priorities because my book was imperative.
Early in the process, Rosanne suggested I look at the chapter in Butler’s book about ‘dreamstorming’ on index cards. It happened to be exactly where my bookmark lay. I read Butler’s description about letting your mind flit and float from one character to the next, from one place to another, feeling, hearing, seeing through each character, paying no mind to chronology or even logic. So that’s what I did. I wasn’t always sure, but this was new territory and I had new hope.
Since I’d been working on this book for many years, some of my scenes were already well imagined, deeply grooved in my mind. I put those on the cards, too, trying to give equal weight to well-travelled places and new ones that came up in my dreamstorming. I resisted the urge to place them in order. I simply wrote six to eight words on a card, put it under the deck and went to the next one.
I stayed high above the details, swooping down for a quick peek at specific sensory particulars, then back up to survey the lay of my novel land. It was pure freedom to fly anywhere I wanted, visiting this character, then that one. I stayed sometimes for a cup of tea with one, just long enough to see how the air felt in that hospital room or abandoned church.
When it came time to imagine one of the most difficult scenes, the one that had always ending my writing sprees before, I didn’t have to stay too long. I swooped down to the side of the road, then back up to fly. Using the cards, I was able to envision the scene that followed this painful one and the next. I was able to feel the character’s healing and relief and move on myself.
I dreamed scenes until I thought there were no more. Then I began the process of laying them out in order – not necessarily chronologically, but with some emotional logic. I placed a few down then gathered them up. I added, subtracted, changed the order. I learned that structure is fluid, just like life. New scenes appeared. Old ones died.
After several days, cards covered my table that stood exactly where my daughter’s little bed once had. There in that bed, she once told me that the sky people took her away at night. “But they always put me back,” she said when she saw my worried face.
My daughter is grown now, living in Chicago. Here I am in her small dreaming room, a little afraid that I will fly away into my book and not return. But each time I do, I return more grounded than before, knowing that my book is taking real shape and becoming something to hold now and one day to open.
For the first time since beginning my book so long ago, I am able to see how it will end. And that makes it possible to start drafting again. Soon the soil will be ready. Each card will blossom into its own bloom to make a garden. Spring is near.