The story of my heart began and finished on a road trip to Taos, a writing oasis where I often work for short periods of time. Before this particular trip, I was pitching a bad manuscript and playing around with new starts for my next book. It was fall, and I wasn’t sure which project to begin so decided to ‘write some up’, a phrase I stole from a friend.
Julie, who commutes an hour to work, raises two kids, and knits beautiful sweaters in all her free time, told me that when she begins a project, she ‘knits some up’ and begins 4-5 different swatches to help her decide which piece to do. What? I’ve tried knitting. It’s not easy. My pieces look like distorted little mats of yarn, resembling nothing; while Julie’s foot-long ensembles are gorgeous, not that I’m comparing. However, once she decides which piece she likes best; she unravels the others. What?
Surely she could use them for something, I said. She shook her head, laughing at me as if I knew nothing. “It’s part of my process,” Julie said. I can’t tell what yarn feels right, blends together, or looks best until I see enough of it to know.”
“And it doesn’t bother you—tossing the remainder?”
“Not at all,” she said. “They’ve served their purpose—without them, I wouldn’t know.”
And like that, I got it.
As a writer, I do the exact same thing. I write, and I toss. I write, and I toss. I write, and I toss. Back when I was a beginner, this was no easy task, and in fact, I couldn’t do it. Rejections do serve a purpose. They make you look at your writing and your journey closely with a critical eye. After a number of rejections, I began a ‘dump’ file on my computer, and when I’d written lovely, witty, AND brilliant sections that sadly needed to leave the page, I stuffed them in a file—just in case I wanted to use them again some day. Or not.
Before leaving for Taos, I’d written up a few starts, new story ideas to sample, still unsure which one to tackle. After driving about three hours, one of my closest and oldest friends called. Unusual. When I answered, she was hysterical. Her sister had discovered that her young teen daughter was cutting. Cath had no kids herself, and her sister and parents lived 1800 miles away, but they were a close family. We talked. She felt better. And then I remembered her dad. We’d grown up together, and her dad was a tough, kind-hearted SOB; determined, right, and very, very religious. I asked if he knew. He did. Apparently he was praying for his granddaughter and was also, praying with her, over her head, almost speaking in tongues. I hung up and couldn’t get the vision out of my head. There was a story in there somewhere.
I stopped for lunch and checked my emails. A different friend had sent me a link to a Rolling Stones article about a rash of suicides in Minnesota; the district of the Tea Party conservative and religious representative, Michele Bachmann. The article’s cover shot showed teenagers holding candles at a vigil. In total, nine gay teens had committed suicide.
My brother was gay. He told me so in an airport parking lot when I was 20-years-old. Ten years my senior, Kirk lived and worked in Portland, and during college I took advantage of $29 deals to fly as a student and visit. It was how we got to know each other as adults. Because I was clueless about his sexuality and my parents had not wanted me to know when I was younger, Kirk chose to tell me in the airport parking lot. His words went something like this:
“I just stopped at the pet store on my way here but the mice have already escaped. They’re somewhere in the car, but we need to find them, because I can’t leave my new boa constrictor with nothing to eat. He lives in the bathroom and will thrash around the medicine cabinet if we don’t, and we’re leaving for the coast in an hour to stay at a cabin with my boyfriend and his two kids.”
Wait. Wait. Wait.
Did he just say a boa constrictor lived in his only bathroom—the one I shared?
I had to get in a car with two loose mice? Not happening.
Did he say we were going to the coast with his boyfriend and his kids?
I stopped and didn’t speak. I didn’t know where to begin. It was quintessential Kirk.
Fortunately, Kirk found the mice without my assistance; he removed the snake whenever I used the bathroom, and we did go to the coast. His boyfriend was awesome, and so were his kids. Two years later Kirk told me he had HIV and two years later, he died.
I read the Rolling Stones article with tears streaming down my face. My brother was brave, one of the many gay men who’d died from AIDS in the early 1990s. Twenty-five years later, kids were still struggling with sexual identity, religious rights and wrongs, and suicide? Enough already. My mind reeled for the rest of the trip.
Because both magic and trauma happen in threes, when I got to the Mabel Dodge House there was a message from my mom. My cousin had died. I didn’t know my cousin well; she was much older and an alcoholic who’d had a rough life full of secrets. Her brother was the last living relative on my dad’s immediate side of the family. Because my dad had recently and suddenly died, I couldn’t ask him about all his family unknowns. I was tired of secrets, and even though ‘recently died’ actually meant that my dad had been gone a year and a half already, I missed him.
The three messages proved to be a trifecta of sorts, and I began to ‘write some up.’
For Taos, it was cold. The sun had dipped under heavy clouds, and rain fell. I’d brought all the wrong clothes, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote for three days, never seeing the sun. The setting played with my mood, as it does in all stories, and gave me its own gift.
In the beginning, UNDONE was a different book. In fact, it was titled VOICES, told by Lily who battled voices in her head, depression, hundreds of secrets, and suicidal tendencies, in addition to everything else. It was WAY too depressing. I worked on it for months and finally pitched it to a few agents. Rejected. Reworked, workshopped, and pitched it again; resulting in lots of interest but ultimately more rejection.
Struggling with knowing what was wrong, I applied to two advanced writing workshops, one taught by Mat Johnson and the other, Nova Ren Suma. Accepted to both, I applied for a grant and attended both. They were nothing short of extraordinary, exactly what I needed to start something new and more importantly, to complete UNDONE. I headed back to Taos to find what Mat insisted needed to be found in every scene: the heart of the story, and under Nova’s direction, I found the book of my heart on every page.
Again, Taos was cool and cloudy, even for August. It didn’t matter. I wrote. I ate. I wrote some more, and I got it.
For months, I’d been plagued with questions about what was wrong with my book: what was it missing, why had agents asked for fulls and then turned it down, how does one know when it’s REALLY done? I asked everyone: mentors, friends, and other writers. Of course, no one had the answer that I needed. But at 11:55 p.m. on August 12, I sat on my tiny twin bed at the Mabel Dodge House, and I knew. Aside from my own minor edits and agent/editor critiques; it was ready and right and beautiful.
I’d found the story of my heart and the heart in every scene.
The odd thing is, now I don’t mind so much what happens to UNDONE; maybe an agent or two will be interested, maybe an editor will want it, maybe I’ll self-publish, maybe I’ll read it to the cat.
But it’s done; mine and complete.