In 1980, I spent several years working on a novel. Then, as life took me in other directions, I put it away. Last year I finished it (or should I say, I stopped revising it) and my agent submitted it to publishers. As the book industry learns to navigate an ongoing pandemic, I don’t expect to get an answer soon. If it’s taken me 40 years to get a novel off my desk, I can wait another couple months to learn its destiny.
But it has reminded me that a big part of writing and authorship is simply patience, elephantine patience.
For the past six months our new routines (waiting for tests, waiting for test results, waiting for tooth cleanings and big weddings) have called on all our reserves of patience – something fiction writers must cultivate, because novels often take their own sweet time coming into focus. Some public health officials, when asked for a timeline about when the pandemic will end, like to say, somewhat maddeningly, “The virus will decide." The same thing goes for finishing a novel; it’s often the DNA of the story that decides.
In the end, the story you are telling and the strangely autonomous whims of your characters will determine the pace of your work – and when the book is done.
This mysterious process of inventing a world on the page requires not only an abundance of patience, but a totally unfounded, irrational, bottomless well of optimism.
Qualities that come in handy now.
Writing itself is a gesture of hope. The momentum of getting to the end of one sentence and beginning another generates a tiny current of optimism because it represents forward momentum, however sluggish. Sentences push forward into the future, even when we don’t know where the story is headed. A page of prose ably demonstrates how to put one foot in front of another: word by word, we poke into the darkness. The author E.L. Doctorow has said “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Now it seems we are all engaged in the same creative activity – driving at night into our unimaginable future. Our lives more and more resemble fiction.
During these pandemic days, I have found the only thing that quiets me and grounds me is sitting down to what might very well be a futile endeavour – writing a brand new novel, one that has nothing to do with COVID-19. Yes, it happens to be inspired by Mrs. Dalloway, the Virginia Woolf novel that many are rediscovering these days. Yes, it’s about mortality, which is more top of mind for everyone now. The story begins cheerfully enough, with a woman who decides to throw herself a spectacular 70th birthday party, full of friends, ex-lovers and enemies from her past. I’ve reached the halfway point and I now see that the ending I planned may not be the ending I arrive at. But I’ve found that imagining a party with 80 or 90 huggable guests, all crowded into one big room – a dance hall modelled on Toronto’s legendary and now doomed Matador Club – is a wonderful antidote to sitting alone at my dining-room-table desk for the umpteenth day in a row.
The future of fiction has always been precarious and the death knell of the novel is gloomily sounded anew every decade. But, zombie-like, the novel always revives, and comes after us again, hungry for our eyes and hearts and minds. Stories comfort us, especially now. Stories tug us into the future.
And into the past as well. These days I am also reading a novel set in 19th-century Russia. One of the main characters has a nasty cough (tuberculosis), which does have a contemporary sting to it. But mostly I couldn’t be happier, imagining myself out there in a Dr. Zhivago-style blizzard, riding in a horse-drawn sleigh as my eyelashes turn white with frost. (The novel is A Russian Sister by Caroline Adderson, which has just been published.) I am so grateful for a writer who can carry me out of these dark days and into a fully imagined world, into another time and place.
Another novel that has just rescued me from my newsfeed is Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. It is set in a Dublin hospital, in a maternity ward, during the Spanish flu epidemic. The novel is a pungent, visceral narrative awash in birth, death and bodily fluids – maybe not the first thing everyone would pick for pandemic reading, but I loved it. In it I also learned that the word “flu” comes from an Italian phrase meaning “influence of the stars.” In other words, the universe has some plot twists we may not understand.
So regardless of how publishing adapts to the unforeseeable new world, I still want to be a writer who can do what those novels do – someone who can coax our lives into the future simply by compelling us to turn the page.
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