I’m continuing to struggle with trajectory, and I’m continuing to poke around in my old files and books and notes in hopes of finding something that will help me find that entry point. What I found yesterday was really helpful.
I set aside some time to set up my space. I cleared off my desk, emptied a shelf on my bookcase and created a space where I can keep all things related to this project (rather than constantly searching through piles of books and notebooks). It’s not as useful as it may sound. I never write at my desk, and the shelf on my bookcase remains largely empty.
I’d like to think that all I need is my laptop and the quiet of the evening. But that’s not so.
This is my way of listening for Mattie in every way that I know how. I have created mental, emotional and physical space for her.
But still she isn’t speaking loudly enough. Or maybe she’s just not telling me what I want to hear.
During yesterday’s Reorganization Movement, I ran across a printed out copy of an email Tracy Daugherty sent me as I was preparing my thesis for my defense. I had more or less given up on Unplanted, and was going through the formalities of getting it reviewed and revised. I had distanced myself so far from the characters that, when I read Tracy’s message, I didn’t fully get what I was being asked to consider.
The story is relentlessly grim: you know that. Far be it from me to ask you to lighten it up in any way, but I think any editor looking at this might ask you to provide some little ray of redemption somewhere–so be aware of that possible reaction. My own impulse would be not to change its outlook or tone, but to give the reader a slightly stronger sense of narrative movement by clarifying what it is, NOW, that has caused Mattie to finally give up hope, once and for all. She keeps saying that this is how it is, how it has always been . . . but something has changed, in her, clearly. What is it? We usually speak of a “character change” in a story. Mattie seems already to have changed as this story opens; a variation on the “character change” is the “loss of a last chance to change,” which seems closer to what you have here. But the reader needs to see that moment of no-return. What is it, in Mattie’s case? In real life, it might be simple exhaustion, but the story needs something more dramatic, more decisive, I think.
At the time I thought it was enough for Mattie to have arrived at this point and see no way out. Simple exhaustion was certainly a catalyst, but I saw her as depressed. I thought I was drawing her as depressed.
What I know now is that I couldn’t see anything but Mattie’s depression. And that makes perfect sense to me now, after having gone through two major depressions myself.
I can see this project becoming more about mental illness than migrant work in some ways. At least, when I do all my thinking late at night that’s what it feels like. Certainly patterns of mental illness are represented in both the interviews I had with Mattie last week.
So maybe it’s this: maybe the catalyst is migrant work.
I have been reading Robert Anderson’s Little Fugue and I have a much better sense of how the novel can be structured. I have thought for a long time that alternating chapters should be in different voices-first Mattie, then Joe and then possibly Amy, and then Mattie again, and so on. Anderson does something similar with his novel, and his book is beginning to feel like a strong influence. I’m not terribly fond of the writing, but I am really interested in the structure. Cunningham does the same thing with The Hours, which has been a large influence for Unplanted.
Last night, just before I fell asleep, in that time when I was too tired to write any more, too tired to reach for my notebook and jot down a few words, I saw a very clear image. Mattie’s hand, crisscrossed with shadows. Her arm. Her chest, slowly and silently heaving. Mattie asleep on the mattress in the bus. This feels like a beginning.
So I am diving in tonight. I don’t know if the first piece I write will serve as the first chapter, or if it will come later. What I know is that I have found a structure that feels comfortable and will, for now at least, help me produce some fiction.