by Julie Brickman, Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction.
I’ve been thinking about why the first draft of my new novel is so much fun to write, so easy. This is totally weird. First drafts are never easy for me. Well, I take that back. One first draft of one story was a rare gift: the voice appeared in my head; the opening scene unfolded, and I was off and writing. I followed the advice of a writer beloved by all of us, who told me that when a story gift came, do not stop until you’re done. I wrote for three days straight, barely stopping to sleep or eat, never answering the phone or going online. It was a story called “The Cop, the Hooker and the Ridealong,” and when it was done, a couple months later, two top journals accepted it within a day of each other. I didn’t even have time to pull it from the second, which was a journal that did not allow multiple submissions.
What I loved about the story is that it gave me a new writing voice. I mean there’s this legend that we have to find our voice, right? As if we have only one. In an interview, the folksinger Joni Mitchell once said, ‘people are always complaining that they feel schizophrenic when they hear two voices in their heads, but I have a whole boarding house full.’ Well, yeah, probably all of us do. Maybe not a boarding house of engaging writer’s voices, but a lot of different ones. I’ve come to recognize a few of my regulars, though variations or even new ones can generate when I change or my material does.
This one was chattier, more spacious, than my usual dense, taut type of voice, the kind I thought made me sound smart, the kind I liked in other writers. It wasn’t so dark either. Nor did it like to run away from home the way I did, so the truth under the fictional setting, the emotional arc, was more visible. And that made me feel vulnerable. I mean, there I was writing about a character named Shane who had ALS. My husband had ALS. Married to Shane was a character named Livia and she was a psychologist turned writer. Like me, she used to work with street kids and soon an amalgam of them along with some of the less savory encounters of my life appeared on the page. The fat cop in the patrol car on p. 1 really did drive around town; I met him a year or two later when I took the citizen’s police academy course. Nosy Alice and Big Walt, two of my neighbors who weren’t much tweaked, turned out to be curious about my fiction. It was fun to see them all, push at the composites in ways I couldn’t with friends or clients or the dodgy parts of my past. What would they do if I actually said what I thought?
That was always one of the fun things about writing. I could turn thoughts into actions, make my recessive characteristics dominant in characters, steer events down roads not taken, see what happened. Maybe writing close to home wasn’t so bad after all.
And that’s what I’m doing now. For a long time — years when I think about it — this book lived in my head. I struggled between two divergent settings, two casts of characters, and two voices, two down from several that had vied to narrate all or parts of this book, transients some of them, temporary lodgers in my skull of voices. One setting would take the story to a third world country rife with significant problems of war, poverty, child labor, a fascinating, compelling setting and a lot of research. The second would stay in California, a place where I’ve set little. I feared the domestic drama, so tired and small compared to world class issues, so rife with exposure. But that’s what I wanted. Having lost my husband, I’d lost the ballast of my last decades. My back yard had slid out from under me during a flooding rainstorm that had turned the slope into a mudslide, taking all but a few feet behind the house into the canyon, leaving a broken and precarious drop. With the onset of the drought, the hydro-seeded slope had dried into a firetrap of sere haylike stalks. I had to replant. So ok, I thought, I’ll set it here. California is one rich venue for writers: by book or birth, it gave us Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, T.C. Boyle, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Joan Didion, Ann Patchett.
So I made my decision and there it was, the chatty, easy domestic voice, the one that loved to be home, to observe and create from my own back yard. Now let’s see how it goes.