Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Thousand Words: The Birth of "Charlotte"

Initially, I did not set out to write the novel, Charlotte.  Long ago, I took a university creative writing class and our teacher, Rebecca, assigned us a short-story exercise:  Each of us was to create a story from the opening line, “Even though her husband had been dead for three years, Molly Green still wore black.” My result was a thousand-word narrative titled, Good Golly, Ms. Molly.
The creative writing process is never an easy one, but for me there’s nothing quite as mentally piquant, and now I realize, too, nothing quite as self-defining. The challenge and engagement of writing certainly held as I wrote stories for that class.  One of them eventually found publication in the university literary journal. As well as what I was learning, I was satisfied with all my creations except for Good Golly, Ms. Molly. Not that I didn’t enjoy writing it, but for some reason I can’t quite explain, it was more difficult, exceptionally more, than the others and I was less than satisfied with the results.
Intriguing, the tricks our minds play on us and on our memories, if not simply thoroughly perplexing. I clearly remember reading Rebecca’s critique.  She hated it.  She’d torn it apart!
The criticism that most preyed on my mind was that it was ambiguous in its narrative point of view, perhaps more akin to a news report of a tragic occurrence than a story engaging readers in the lives of its characters. That stung.  I was a tad angry, defensive, and then, as I considered it more and more, I toddled toward humiliation because I knew it was true. To me, it meant that my story sucked, and it meant I sucked as a writer.
Rather than try to fix it with a rewrite, I made a mental note to never repeat the mistakes and then rationalized it all with the face-saving thought that it was, after all, just an exercise. I shoved it in a drawer and tried to forget it.
Years later, as I rummaged through that drawer, I ran across it. In that second, just seeing it laying there, I again felt the rubnot to the extreme I first had, but I was annoyedannoyed at the difficulty of the process, at Rebecca’s rebuff and, ultimately, at myself for the bad job I felt I’d done. Of course, I hadn’t even tried, so I was also annoyed that I didn’t know how to fix it.

I flipped through the five pages and finally re-read it and her critique. Something was wrong. The disdainful things she’d said about it, other than the perspective problem, were no longer there in her red-penciled notes. She’d merely pointed out how to make it better, and even how much she liked the story, overall. That gave me a laugh!  I was the only one who’d torn it apart.  Do you see what I mean about tricks of the mind?
But, here it still was in my hands, irreparable in my mind. Of course, some things are like that. There’s no way to see the solution until some action is taken. I suspect that’s why it’s called rewrite, not rethink. In retrospect, I’m extremely grateful it didn’t occur to me in that moment that I’d once dismissed it as just an exercise, and I could easily do it again and forever. Had I, I’d likely have shoved it back into the drawer, closed it, and that would have been thatCharlotte aborted before conception.
The next time I talked with Rebecca (we became good friends after I took her class, as we remain today), I mentioned the story to her and the nonsense I’d carried in my mind about it over the years. That conversation and several more led us both to the conclusion, or at least the sense, that there was a novel within those thousand words. Still, I resisted for years, doing nothing more than thinking about it occasionally.
Many years later, Rebecca and I finally sat down together, armed with coffee, notebooks and pens, and asked each other all the questions and tossed around all the possible answers that eventually revealed a character named Charlotte.  In Good Golly, Ms. Molly, Charlotte’s name never came up, but the outline completed that day uncovered that it was, in fact, Charlotte’s story.
The irony is that in bringing Charlotte and her story to life, Good Golly, Ms. Molly practically rewrote itself, and became chapter one of Charlotte.