After the publication of his classic novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison spent over forty years working on his sophomore effort, Juneteenth. When asked by an interviewer to explain the delay, he blamed it on a fire which destroyed his manuscript during the early 1970s. But now, nearly twenty years after his death in 1994, scholars believe Ellison was stricken with self-doubt and insecurities from the pressure of being the token voice of Black America during the pre-Civil Rights era following his celebrated debut. Ellison suffered from the strains of creative paralysis, a condition that, for whatever the reasons, can strike any writer. I ought to know; it happened to me. It took me twenty years to finish my novel.
Now I’m certainly not in the same league as Ellison; I’m not even a published novelist. Yet I know how easy it is to get caught in that trap. I experienced everything that could possibly go wrong and suffered the confusion, fear, and self-doubt that Ellison might have felt all those years. A more experienced writer, recognizing she was fighting a losing battle, might have given up. Yet nothing frightened me more.
I was ambitious. I was also young and still discovering my voice. And though I lived in the San Francisco bay area, a place so rich with its own literary traditions, I didn’t seek out a writing community. I had only my books. So I struggled alone because I thought that was the proper way to write.
I went into the project well-armed, or at least that’s what I thought. I knew what I wanted to write about. The novel was to explore suicide and denial within the black community through the eyes of a young girl who struggles to get to the bottom of her parents’ tragic and inexplicable deaths in a house fire several years earlier. She, along with her grandmother, her father’s best friend, an aunt and cousin, and her mother’s former lover formed the backbone of the story’s narrative. I kept a list of character names and bios and wrote a timeline of the community’s history. I included references to characters who were long dead and the gothic specter of ghosts and dream worlds. I wanted to write a serious novel and tossed in everything I thought would make it so. Confident that it was all going to come together somehow, I began writing. I wrote the prologue and the first few chapters with ease, but soon got stuck. My head crawled with so many ideas I had trouble organizing them all. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, I wound up writing by trial and error.
Realizing I needed help, I turned to books. I reread Toni Morrison’s novels––The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved––to study exposition, multiple character points of view, voice. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping taught me the power of observation, particularly of the natural world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, for better and worse, taught me about magic realism. I read books about writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a collection of Reader’s Digest books on craft. I researched the Vietnam war, as well as the history of African Americans in California.
The books were instructive, but they didn’t help me confront my main problem: How do I juggle plot and all these different voices and make them gel? That was something I was going to have to work out on my own. My main problem was that I was too generous and too desperate to be democratic. The novel had nine main characters, tons of exposition, a rigidly structured plot, enough stories to fill three novels, and my lame attempts at magic realism. I refused to make tough choices. As the problems multiplied, I became more frustrated and indecisive. Crippled with self-doubt, I’d write two or three pages only to delete them along with whatever confidence I had left.
While I struggled to fix the problems in my novel, I faced numerous setbacks that ground its progress to a halt. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, I was relying more on technology. Before I got a computer, I used a small laptop word processor and saved all my files on a floppy disc (remember those old relics?). It was a primitive machine but it performed all the necessary functions. Back then I was strangely confident in technology. I foolishly thought it was more reliable than a good old-fashioned hard copy manuscript ripped straight from a typewriter. You can’t destroy a floppy disc as easily as you can paper. It was all there, stored in a single file on a hard piece of plastic.
God, was I ever stupid!
One night before dinner I decided to work on my novel. I slid the floppy disc into the slot of my WP and clicked on my file. As it came up on screen, I realized something was wrong. My novel had been replaced by strings of squares and alphabetical and numerical gibberish. I frowned and scrolled down the entire page, growing more panicked. I exited the file and ejected the disc. After confirming that it was still in rewritable mode, I slid the disc back in again. Still the same problem. The disc was corrupted. My entire manuscript was gone. All those days, weeks, and months of hard work gone.
I wanted to toss the WP across the room. Instead I cried. I was frustrated and angry at myself, at technology, and the world in general. I had spent years conceiving, dreaming, planning, researching and writing this novel and now it all came to nothing.
Yet the more bad luck pushed at me, the more I pushed back. In an interview, Ellison, regarding his second novel, stated that “I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.” I found myself in a similar dilemma. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I was determined to see it through to the end because I really had no other choice.
Needing space and clarity, I decided to put my novel aside and work on other writing projects. I had even begun submitting a few stories to magazines and journals. None of them were accepted, but I kept writing and developing my craft. I also started to read more. I bought an eclectic mix of novels and short story anthologies, learning as much from them as I could.
Still my thoughts drifted back to my novel. It rattled around in my head while I browsed in a bookstore, walked down the street, or rode the train to work. I’d jot down a few lines in my journal, knowing that I was going to start climbing that mountain again.
This time I tried a different strategy. I shared my short stories and fragments of my novel with coworkers and later joined a workshop. After I started attending school, I felt confident enough to workshop my work-in-progress. In a class of nearly forty, I read aloud the prologue to my novel. The response was encouraging. People loved the rich details and the humor.
It was the encouragement I needed to continue working on my novel. Everyday I wrote, balancing my time between classes and family, until I finally finished. When I wrote the last sentence, I leaned back in my chair and shrugged. I expected to feel something––elation, relief, joy––but instead felt nothing. In fact, it seemed rather anticlimactic. I was done, but I knew I wasn’t finished.
During my last semester at San Francisco State University, I took an independent study class with the Head of the Creative Writing Department. I was to work one-on-one with her to plan and write a specific project. I chose my novel. Though I had a completed draft, I needed guidance on how to revise it. I sent her a synopsis and the first fifty pages. Her response was unequivocal. It was too long. She was right. At that point, it had tipped past a thousand pages. No publisher was going to take a chance on a debut fiction that was longer than three hundred. I’d heard this advice before, but it was the first time I took it seriously. I needed to butcher this thing.
She pointed out the repetitions in the novel, both on the plot and sentence level, and advised that I cut down word count by having characters talk to each other. I took her advice (though the one about characters talking to each other would drastically change a novel that was about the problems caused by people who don’t talk to each other). I made other serious edits. I took out the magic realism, which was quite frankly was amateurish. I dropped a few characters and truncated or excised scenes to tighten the plot. I edited the novel down to a little over five hundred pages. Not the three hundred or less I was aiming for, but still a pretty significant achievement. When I delivered another fifty pages to my instructor, she was more circumspect.
“Your characters are getting away from you,” she said. “Have you ever thought about writing this in third person?”
In other words I needed to distance myself from the text. Ironically in earlier versions the novel was written in third person, but it demanded to be written in first. Yet my instructor was right. These characters were running roughshod over me. I needed to wield more control.
After I graduated in 2009, I embarked on rewriting the entire novel in third person. I spent the next year on the revision, making more editing choices, truncating more scenes. Once completed, the story had become tighter, more focused. I had a better sense of what it was about thematically.
And yet, I was dissatisfied. I kept fiddling with the narrative, cutting scenes, adding others, or rewriting them altogether. Something wasn’t right. At first I thought I was being a perfectionist or that I was reluctant to let go after having worked on it for so long. By spring, however, I realized what happened. In trying to gain control over the narrative, I had also cut out its heart. The story needed to be in first person. It needed those clashing voices.
I rewrote the novel yet again, using the previous revised version as a template. Of course certain scenes and passages had to be rewritten, cut out, or added but the final version was essentially the same. All those voices I had trouble capturing now resounded beautifully, painfully, joyfully.
I set the manuscript away while I worked on other projects, but when I returned to it with fresh eyes, those fresh eyes still saw problems. As I reread the novel, my dissatisfaction with it grew. As much as I wished I had conquered all my problems, I was faced with the possibility that my novel just wasn’t any good. I continued to tinker away, adding scenes, rewriting sentences, and constantly obsessing over whether the novel was “good enough,” until one day, after toying with the idea of rewriting whole sections, I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be satisfied with it. It wasn’t because the story or characters weren’t good enough. Rather, I realized that I had changed. I was no longer the person or writer who had conceived this story over twenty years ago. My perspectives had changed. My writing style had changed as well. The only proper response to my novel was to simply let it go.
Yet I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my characters. I still believed they deserved to have their story told. Since it was 2012, roughly twenty years after I first conceived the idea for the novel, I began to wonder what happened to these characters during that time. This gave me a whole new infusion of ideas. With very little preplanning I dove into a new novel. I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new novel or what I wanted it to be about (though a few ideas had percolated in the back of my mind). Rather, I just followed my instincts, taking it one step at a time. I wrote every day, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, refusing to second-guess myself. I wrote down any idea that came to my head, no matter how wacky. As the novel progressed, the narrator’s voice became more humorous and snarky. I played around with structure and style, including footnotes, twitter posts, and text messages (though hardly revolutionary, this was a new approach for me). By the end of that summer, I had completed over 98,000 words, which, through the revision process, I’d whittle down to nearly 96,000, a far cry from the 180,000+ behemoth that I had originally written years ago.
I had never written that way before and it was liberating. I trusted my instincts and took what I learned over the years to heart. I wasn’t afraid to take paths that the writer I used to be would have never had the confidence to take. There were ideas that I had included in the first draft that didn’t make it to the final rounds, but that’s okay. I learned that to get close to the results I wanted, I had to be willing to jump off a few cliffs and trust that the earth below was soft. I learned to take risks. But, more than anything, if working on this novel for twenty years has taught me anything, it was that I also had to be willing to risk failure and learn to give up. It was only by giving up on my novel that I could write the story that deserved to be told.