Each time I go back to the early drafts of Unplanted, even the most recent drafts, I get caught up in the voice. I think now that one thing that has kept me away from this project for so long is the voice, and my knowing that I cannot sustain that voice throughout the book. When I wrote it, I was pretty specific in the way I approached the page. I kept a copy of The Hours beside me. I listened to Phillp Glass. I wrote a lot at night. I created my own darkness so that I could pour that into the story.
And the story became, to borrow the words of my thesis advisor, ‘relentlessly bleak.’ I struggled to find areas where I could open things up a bit and allow some light to slip in, but that was a very difficult task. At times it seemed impossible.
What kept me going was the voice. I heard that voice in Glass’ pieces. And I admit that I tried to emulate Cunningham at times. Once I began writing it in first person, the voice became even darker.
On page three I write:
In one faint, uneventful gesture, the sun collapses just beyond the orchard’s edge, a glowing oval that gives up on its attempt to pierce the dense blanket that covers it. It falls into the deep gray edge of the sky. The trees lose their color and everything in the orchard takes on a lifeless hue.
I had also managed to distance myself from the plot. I knew that Mattie’s depression was so severe that she would attempt suicide. The story was aimed at that one event. I knew, and my advisor knew, what it was that had brought Mattie to this dark place. But I couldn’t put those reasons on the page. I had fallen so deeply into Mattie’s head, so deeply into that dark place, that I couldn’t see the things that had brought me there.
I was writing Mattie to her own death.
It made sense to write from that perspective. I thought if I could just keep my reader’s interest long enough, they would begin to learn about Mattie through Joe. I had planned to let him take over the story after Mattie’s suicide attempt.
In the most recent draft I have, Joe enters the motel room an hour or so after Mattie cuts herself. He sees her there and she is still alive and he leaves. I labored over that scene. Later, though, I shifted the POV to Amy, and the voice became lighter. In a brief chapter I did not include in my thesis (a piece I titled ‘Eulogy,’) I wrote this:
Amy has always liked to watch the odometer, the way the numbers—white on black except for the last one, which is curiously, the opposite—the way they move in slow sequential flips. By now she has pretty much figured it out, she knows that the whole thing counts how far the car goes, knows how to count the miles from one farm to the next.
And there it is. This voice feels much more real to me, and it’s certainly more sustainable. (True, it does waver between an older and a younger pov; that’s something I often struggle with in the June stories, too.) It matches with the plot line that I’ve worked out. In some ways it still feels stripped down compared to the original voice. But that’s not a bad thing. I have to keep reminding myself that there is much more to this story than Mattie’s depression.
And I have to keep reminding myself that there is much more to my writing than purple prose.
But I am torn. I do not want to completely give up much of what I have in the most recent draft, but I am certain that I cannot sustain that voice. What I have come to realize is that this is Mattie’s voice. This is the voice that comes from her darkest place. I think I can keep it–some of it, anyway–if I transform it into the preface. I worry that I am stealing from Cunningham (there is a suicide in the preface of The Hours), but I at the very least I can keep it as my working preface. It’s a sort of reminder to myself of where Mattie is going; yet it will remain separate from the chapters that follow. I think I can make it work. That’s what I will be working on over the next few days.