One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
– Jack Kerouac, American writer, poet, and artist, from The Dharma Bums
Musings on finishing and on the process
Although I have completed a handful of major revisions of my first novel, A Village in the Fields, which I had begun in May of 1997, as I headed toward the finish line with this final revision, I wondered what feelings would come over me. Would I be relieved because I feared my interest and energies were waning? Sad that something that has been with me for more than 16 years would finally be coming to a close? Or empty, having completely given everything – the shirt off my back, my last pulsing emotion – over to the whole of the novel, to the final scene, the last word? It is all of the above.
I think about all that has happened these last 16-plus years – getting engaged on a trip to Italy and marrying, home remodeling, giving birth and raising two children, undergoing a major house remodel and addition, enduring numerous job changes, immersing myself in public school battles and volunteering at the schools, losing Bailey, and losing and letting go of my mother. All of these events have helped to shape the novel as it moved along its journey of 1,000 pages to 600 pages to its “slimmed down” current 444 pages, which included the loss of a major character and the methodical approach to resolving literary issues.
During a break this past year, I took out the folder I had kept of the many – but not all 60 – rejections from literary agents that I had received from the end of 2005 to the beginning of 2006. With each rejection that I got in the mail, I sank deeper in my despondency and self-doubt. I put the manuscript away. I stopped reading. I stopped writing. I did other things. It was not hard to be immersed in other things, especially when you have young children. I thought about it every once in a while, but I was too wounded to do anything but think about all that effort and time that I had invested and yet easily cast aside.
At some point, though, I went back to the manuscript. My good friend, Kathy Brackett Verschoor, had written to me, asking if I had met up again with my main character, Fausto Empleo. She was missing him, she told me, and longed to reconnect with him. And so it was that I was missing him, too. I yearned to finish his story, his life. The writer inside me wanted to reemerge. Could I do it again? This time there would be no expectations. I just wanted to do him justice. I wanted to tell his story. And so in 2010 I reopened my files and ever-so-slowly re-acquainted myself with Fausto and together we got back on the road again.
As I wordsmithed the last pages and printed out the last chapter, I thought about what it meant to me to have finally finished the novel. I started it two years after my father passed away. I had wanted to give him something I had written and published, but at the time I only had one published story to my name. My father, with his second-grade education, had asked me how to spell words when he sat down to write letters to his relatives in the Philippines. When I had won a literary prize at UC Davis as a senior in the English Department, he cut out the article about it from our local newspaper and kept it in his suitcase of documents under his bed. I found it when we were going through his personal belongings after he had passed away. Well, I told myself ruefully, whenever I would get around to writing a novel, I would dedicate it to his memory.
I also wanted to hand a published novel to my mother. She was very excited when I went away to Syracuse University for my graduate studies, but she thought I was going to teach English at the college level, which was never my plan. So when she told me about a teaching position at Modesto Junior College my last semester at Syracuse and I told her I didn’t want to teach, after a lengthy long-distance pause, she asked me why then was I there in the first place? I immediately answered: I want to write. She didn’t understand. She read the Reader’s Digest, the National Enquirer, Women’s Day. She had no time for fiction. After she passed away, and my sisters and I were cleaning out her bedroom, I looked for clues as to how she viewed me. I found a half-written letter to her cousin, Noli. When she wrote of me, it was to say that I was working hard as usual and mentioned the kids. That, I deduced, was what she thought of me, always working, which was true, and taking care of the kids, which was also true. That was my world, nothing more, nothing less.
I can’t help but think what she would have written had she had a book I had published sitting on her nightstand. Maybe she would have read it, maybe she wouldn’t have. Maybe it would have been tangible proof that validated my time in graduate school in her eyes. I can ponder all I want; the truth is I can’t change or fix what did or didn’t happen. But after she passed away, a literary fire was lit. And I vowed that I would finish it in 2012. I was already working on it in 2010 – ploddingly – and then in 2011 her illness stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t finish it in 2012 because of lack of time and energy, though I slowly worked my way through 2012 and into 2013. As I put the last chapter in the folder and then into its box the other evening, I thought to myself that in its current state it would have been good enough for me to give it to her like that. If she were still alive.
Sometimes we may not understand why things happen, or why things happen at a particular time in our lives. In our humble human state, we may try to work it all out in our heads and in our hearts because we need that order amid the chaos. I’m reminded of an essay by William Paley, “The Watch and the Human Eye,” from my old college philosophy textbook, A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, which made an impression on me back in 1981: “There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance, without a contriver; order, without choice; arrangement, without anything capable of arranging; subserviency and relation to a purpose, without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, and executing their office in accomplishing that end, without the end ever having been contemplated, or the means accommodated to it.”
For me, once I understand and accept, I am done with the mourning or the self-pity or the denial, and I get up and determine what to do next. I wanted to go back to the novel because that is what I feel is my gift to nurture, to hone, and then to share. Having a gift does not mean it is ready to share. I didn’t realize it back then. I had to work even harder. And so I did.
The phrase, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings,” has been attributed to various writers, but I’ll hang my hat on William Faulkner as the author. I slashed and burned. I had to be convinced that one of my major protagonists was a drag on the narrative, which took a few years to be convinced – by my good friend, Jack, and David. I didn’t know how to write a novel when I first started out. I just kept going, guided by my historical research, but nonetheless blindly. I knew the beginning and the ending, but not the middle. So the major protagonist was deleted. Chunks of writing were deleted, with alacrity and without remorse. Every word was agonized over, wordsmithed again and again. I came to enjoy this whole process. Careful with the hammer and chisel in hands that were growing more assured with each day, trying to find the shape, the body.
I came to accept that it took time I did not have. While I was despondent that I did not have the chunk of time I needed to fully focus on it, I found it in little bits and pieces. And that was good enough. A week of vacation here, a long weekend there. Stay focused. There will be a moment, I told myself, when I will hit “save” and I know that I am done. Older, wiser, better for the years that have gone by and for the experiences – both joyful and mournful – that somehow are in those pages.
I raise a glass of wine, happy for the moment. Fittingly, the end of 2013, the end of one journey. I know it has another, more difficult, journey to make in 2014. This time, however, I’m not apprehensive. It will find its way in the world, which has changed so much in the last eight years. And I will return to the second novel I had begun while I was waiting for the first novel to find its home. While I don’t profess to know how to write a novel now, I have a more formed idea. I don’t expect it will take another 16 years. I have more confidence and faith in myself. I know to be true to my heart and to find a way when there is no path before me.
One last excerpt from the novel:
Fausto walked out of his room and into the courtyard, with Rogelio beside him, Rogelio’s hand resting on his back. The sun branded his head and shoulders the moment they passed the shade of the oak tree. Heat seeped through the weave of his cotton shirt and into his skin like a menthol ointment. The hundred-degree temperature would have sapped him, but he felt refreshed, sharing silence in the open spaces.
They walked in a wide arc in the cleared field. Rogelio marveled at the hardiness of the plants and weeds that took root in the sandy soil. It made Fausto look at the land with appreciative eyes, although dust dulled everything in their path—the once-shiny leaves of nutsedge and the patches of yellow-flowered sow-thistle. Dust tipped the starry seed heads of Bermuda grass. It heathered the spear-shaped oleander leaves. Pink and white oleander blooms drooped, although their almond scent simmered in the heat.
Rogelio steered Fausto toward the building. “Let’s get some water and go back to your room. I don’t want you to get heat stroke.” But it was Rogelio who was wilting. He blotted his face with Fausto’s handkerchief, but fine beads of perspiration kept forming on his upper lip. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Fausto gazed at the tips of the cypress trees above the tiled roof. He wanted to put a hand over his heart—it was racing again—yet he didn’t want Rogelio to worry or the day to end. But now that he was done talking, he felt empty. Although he was grateful to be with Rogelio, he was still waiting.