This is neither about the legality of former slaves or about the senior President Bush. This is about deadlines, and re-envisioning the middle grade book, and the panic of feeling like I cannot write.
Third semester in a row now on this middle grade novel and fourth entirely different approach. The more I revisit this story, the more I whittle away at it, the less I know it. Perhaps there’s a wisdom in there somewhere, about having to forget everything I know (or think I know) in order to regain what is lost, or to find the true heart of the story, but for the life of me all it makes me feel like is failure.
Everything I read suggests my problems come from a lack of conflict, that instead of my main character wanting something the story is, as one person described it, One Damn Thing After Another. But the models don’t fit the story I want to tell, the story isn’t about a character who knows what he wants. In fact, it’s precisely because he doesn’t know what he wants that he figures it out in the end.
It’s always bothered me when character set out on their journeys with so clear a desire. As humans, we do that for the big picture, but so much of our lives are shaped by the little picture, the things that happen along the way that add up down the road. We’ll cut some slack on an adventure story, or a mystery, because we know that the pieces will be filled in along the way. But when it comes to a string of unintended consequences adding up to a true-but-unsuspecting sum of the parts, boy, we don’t like to talk about those plot structures because they don’t work.
Except I don’t believe that.
When I was training to be an art teacher I had so many adults wish me luck because they felt art wasn’t teachable, it was some mystical talent you were born with, and good luck. I’m not going to lay out how incredibly false this notion is except that I understand how people could come to that conclusion. Tweens and teens are fond of expressing how impossible their homework is, how their soccer coaches demand the impossible, how no matter what they do the just don’t get it and never will. It is a simple but no less true fact that the only thing we are born knowing how to do is laugh and everything else along the way must be learned. There may be any variety of impediments along the way that prevent one from becoming, say, an Olympian athlete or a nuclear physicist, but no one is born a natural archaeologist or a natural gardener, and really, everything must be learned.
Along the way we gather bits and peices of those things that will make us the people we are, except those pieces don’t control us; we chose those things that define us and we combine them into our personal narratives. So as we read those narratives – in real life and in books – we tend to believe in those stories that resonate with our experience. If our experience is limited to several hundred years’ worth of unrealistic goal-centered journeys where every action is in support of the main character’s prime objective, then any story that falls outside of that track is foreign territory, it’s off the map, and as a consequence, we see it as ‘wrong.’
I recall being in sixth grade and thinking I wanted to be an animator for Disney when I grew up. Knowing and vocalizing that didn’t send me on a journey to meet a famous animator, or spend my days obsessively drawing flip books, or get me in trouble at school for handing in book reports that were really summaries of Disney cartoons. In sixth grade I was busy writing and illustrating puns and puzzle books, modifying my Stingray into a low-rider bike, reading books on magic, and spending my summers taking oil painting and ceramics classes. Perhaps if I had been more obsessed I would have ended up an animator for Disney, but clearly that wasn’t my destiny, and so any story of my life written as a middle grade novel wouldn’t work.
But here I am, and things happened during these years in between, and it seems sometimes that maybe life really is about the random elements that add up to something you couldn’t see from the beginning.
I know this story backwards and forwards. I know these boys and how they think, how their field of vision is blinkered to the point they can barely see their own feet, and I know the trouble they get into because of it. I know what they’re up against, and what they think they’re up against, and all the key players. I know all these things and yet I cannot seem to express them in a way that makes narrative sense in any traditional format.
I wrote a solid new opening. Then a second chapter came slower. I’m weeding elements from previous drafts and making it breezier, but now it feels artificial. I found the inciting incident and wrote four more chapters and then, just an hour ago while lying in bed unable to sleep, realized I didn’t need it. I thought I had to give these boys I’m writing about a reason to spin off and make these mini comics that piss people off – but they don’t need a reason. They’re boys, this is what boys do. They become the inciting incident. Fellow students react to them, they in turn react to the reaction, chain reaction sends everything spinning off into space, story ends when everything comes crashing back to earth and the boys are left with a bunch of smashed pieces to deal with. They don’t want any of what happens to them, their desires are almost selfish, and if there can be said to be anything resembling rising tension and set-backs they aren’t object based.
I’ve been having to fight this Aristotelian view of the craft for some time and haven’t really found anything that makes me feel comfortable with my writing. It may simply be I have become much too stubborn to see that the story is impossible because I will not (or cannot) cram the story into the mold.
It’s not supposed to be easy, I know that. Does it have to feel so impossible?