That one passage in a novel


    I felt the starched walls
of a pink cotton penitentiary
closing in on me.


Novels are long and have plots and story arcs and subplots and things. But sometimes one single sentence or passage from a novel will stick with me for years.

Sometimes it’s because the language is poetic. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout Finch’s aunt comes to stay, she tries to turn Scout into a little lady. Scout explains her situation thus: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me.” As a lifelong tomboy, this sentence speaks to me loud and clear.

Other times I’ll remember a passage that made me think about the universe in a new way. At one point in my life, my favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’ll never forget the nanny, Old Golly, proclaiming “There are as many ways to live as there are people in the world.”

A few years later I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that remains on my favorites list to this day. It not only shook up my thinking on gender, but also on political boundaries, when one of the characters asks a not-so-simple question:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”

Finally, I have to admit I’m a sucker for scenes where a character quotes Shakespeare and pulls it off. I like this especially when it comes from an Average Joe type character, such Barnaby Gaitlin in Patchwork Planet by Ann Tyler. Barnaby goes through a bit of character development during the course of the story. Without giving spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book, there’s a scene where he recalls one poem he learned in school that he understood, a Shakespearean sonnet. He turns to another character, saying “Haply I think on thee.” You’d never predict the words coming from his mouth early in the book, but it so works by the time he says it.

Yeah, novels are long and there are big things in them: plots, story arcs and so on. But attention to detail is still important. Paying attention to getting the right words in the right order at the right place. It matters.

Elusive Finish Line

I’ve been working on the first draft of my first novel for a year and five months. For last five months I’ve claimed to be in the home stretch, a place that has proved to have great elasticity indeed. My finish line keeps moving.  I’ve added three chapters that somehow eluded my beginning outline, so how was I supposed to know I was going to have to write them? Then there’s the ever-present problem of finding time to do the writing. I considered telling my kids they couldn’t have birthdays this year because I had a book to finish, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Likewise I never quite get to the point of saying to my boss “Sorry, I’m on a roll with my writing. My paying job will have to wait.”

It’s getting embarrassing, as people ask me how the novel is going and I keep answering “Almost done with the first draft.”  I hope it doesn’t go on my tombstone: “She almost finished the first draft.” I started telling people I was writing a novel because I thought if others knew about my project, I’d have to finish it. It would help me to take myself seriously.

At first I spoke with enthusiasm, even when I encountered the skeptical look I knew meant everyone’s writing a novel. I spoke with confidence because I knew I’d be the person who actually finished the task. When queried, I’d report “Got the outline done.” Or “Wrote another chapter last week.” And it sounded even to me as if I were progressing toward something, even if I was getting there at a strolling pace. Now I’m starting to feel like Moses, with the promise of a new land shifting ever onward into the future and a whole nation asking “Are we there yet?” Or like a bad credit risk. I find myself tempted to avoid those acquaintances who are most likely to ask about the status of my novel because it feels too much like “Do you have that $20 you owe me yet?”

I know I’ve done this to myself.  It’s only because I set myself up for it that I have to feel so sheepish now when I answer. I suppose there’s only one solution, and that’s to finish the damn book. Which I guess means my plan is working.  I told everyone I was going to do it. Now I have to keep my word.