How not to write a novel
I began writing my current project, River of the Crumbling Banks, about a week before I moved from West Virginia to Boston in the fall of 1994. Now, finding my way back to the project after some years, I can look back at the path I’ve taken to get here and see it in some ways as inevitable and in others as an utterly quantum approach to project management. I started River… with about fifteen pages of description of a (then) geologist (now a civil engineer) driving into a southwestern Pennsylvania town to start a new job. The original piece was obviously written at a time of transition for me, but also at a time of loss. I’d been working as a contract archaeologist for the previous four years, and was moving away from a place and a life I loved to start down a different path.
I was also ending a five-year relationship, though this wouldn’t be clear for a few more months. As a part of that process, I made a really devastating drive from Morgantown, WV, to Charleston, WV, to drop off the two dogs we’d owned together on my soon-to-be-ex’s family farm. The two hours in the car with those dogs, and their unquestioning trust, while I knew I’d be leaving them somewhere they’d likely not be well cared for (a long story in itself and not something I say to denigrate the ex-girlfriend or her family, but the dogs did vanish, and were likely killed, after a few weeks), was a hauntingly willful choice to accept loss as the price for coming unstuck in my life. It was one of the few moments in my life in which I was handed, gift-wrapped, an objective correlative for an emotional transformation.
So I’m sure in part because the experience was too fresh, and in part because I had another project in the works, and also because first year graduate students have little hope of getting into the decent fiction workshops in the program, I spent my first year and a half of graduate school studying poetry and nonfiction writing. It wasn’t until my second year (of three) that, in a panic to write a second story for Pam Painter’s class, that I wrote out the skeleton of River… as a thirty page narrative summary “story.” While Pam’s feedback was encouraging, her clear advice was to write it as the novel it obviously was. The last year of my graduate study was spent working on the novel, but by the end of that year, I’d gotten perhaps a hundred pages in, maybe a quarter of the way through the story.
I had pressing reasons for wanting to graduate and move on, not the least of which was the cost of staying in the program. My father’s health, which had long been poor, was taking a turn for the worse, and he had a major surgery scheduled for the upcoming summer. I pressed my case to have the incomplete novel accepted as a thesis, and ultimately prevailed with the argument that 100 quality pages was better than 300 pages of crap, and most theses were about that length. But I knew there was merit to the opposing argument, that you can’t “demonstrate mastery” of a craft without finishing the novel and if I didn’t finish it then, chances were I wouldn’t after school. I knew this danger was double for me, given my pathological inability to finish anything.
Predictably, the period immediately following graduate school provided little opportunity for continued writing. My father’s surgery did not go well and he died in June 1998. I was married in November of that year, and my wife and I bought a house and had two children between 2001 and 2004. Professionally, I moved through two positions in five years at Emerson’s Division of Continuing Education and then over to MIT OpenCourseWare, which runs at a blistering pace. During this period, I made some progress on rewriting the novel, but it was spotty at best, which is not to make excuses. I could have chosen to prioritize writing more. I did not. I can also see now that the time to put some distance between me and the original moment, to experience and process other more profound losses, and to learn—via MIT OCW—what it means to finish things has positioned me well to finish the novel. It’s my hope that this site will also help me remain mindful of craft, rather than become a distraction. I just hope that when the time comes for a second novel, the path to finishing it will be less winding.