I’ve always said that I am not a novelist, that I don’t have a novel in me. I’m a poet. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about trying something new. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote stage plays and screenplays. My very first attempt at writing was a novel (I was twelve and wrote a page). Prose isn’t entirely alien to me: I’ve written loads of non-fiction, including three book-length biographies. And, I’ve written a book-length poem. Mash all of that together and I wonder what I’ve got.
Writing prose has always struck me as work for more patient people. I am not a patient person. All that plotting and characterization. I’ve always felt more of a single-speaker, single-moment kind of writer. The short lyric poem. I love economy of words, perfect word choices, tight construction. Sharp and incisive with a punch. When I took on The Hungry Grass and realized it wanted to be a long poem, and not a collection of lyrics, I headed into uncharted territory. I really didn’t know if I could do it, and maybe that’s the whole secret. I didn’t know if I could, but I set out anyway. I’ve done that a lot in my life. The BA. The MA. The PhD. I really didn’t know if I could do any of it.
For no reason that I know of, the idea of writing a novel has surfaced again. It has done this a few times, and I toy with it, and then I shelve it. I think, “The gods didn’t make me a novelist.” Perhaps I need to take the suggestion more seriously. Or, more lightly. Maybe I should stop thinking of it as such serious business and just start playing with ideas. Maybe I should give myself an assignment. When I first wrote a stage play, it was an assignment in my drama intro class. Thank you Dr. Tyson. When I first wrote a screenplay, it was an assignment in my creative writing intro class. Thank you Prof. Oordt. Those projects have never seen the light of day since I left university, but that’s not the point. The point is that those forms were unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me as a writer, and if they hadn’t been assigned, I might never have experimented with them.
Maybe I should experiment with something new. Maybe I should just set out.
Finishing tells people something about you. It tells you something about you. That you can see something through, that you can complete. And when I say finish, I mean finish, as in polish, complete, not just slap it together and call it done, which fools no one, not even you. Finishing means a number of things, whether the subject is a long poem or a university degree or a home-improvement project. Finishing opens up possibilities, at the same time that it closes a circle.
This week, I finished writing my long poem–2290 lines with 253 footnotes. From inception to completion took about ten years. I had to do more research than I thought I’d have to do, for one thing, and financial support is always a problem–thank you to the Woodcock Fund and the Canada Council. My Canada Council file is now closed because I filed my final report, a grant requirement, and because I have done that, I can apply for another grant. That doesn’t mean I’ll get one, but I had to finish in order to have the privilege.
I know now some things I did not know before I undertook to write “The Hungry Grass.” I know I can conceive and execute a very ambitious plan, and I know the logistics of doing that. I really know those things, and I couldn’t have learned them any other way. Yes, I completed a Master’s and a PhD, my training ground for this undertaking. They build on each other, in terms of formal structures. During the degrees, I had signposts and milestones along the way, and supervisors (heaven love Christopher Wiseman and Roberta Buchanan) to get me through the minefield of the thesis, the comprehensives, and the dissertation. This time, I was on my own, from start to finish, obstacles as well as accomplishments.
So that’s what finishing means. It’s about focus and commitment and tenacity and desire and growth. We don’t really know that we can until we do. Now, I don’t have to wonder. Now, I can start looking for my next big idea.
One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.
But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.
But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.