The Set Up
Yesterday a student told me she was excited about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but also intimidated by it. Like most of us poets, she is accustomed to writing short pieces, and has never attempted anything as big as a full novel. Feeling overwhelmed is perfectly natural feeling, experienced by yours truly when I tried it my first time out. I’d like to share with you the confidence I gained from facing that fear, switching from writing poetry to stretching out into a longer piece of prose and the tools that served me in learning how to tell a story.
Call it The Hero’s Journey through NaNoWriMo and back again with gifts to share.
The Normal World, Main Character, Unfulfilled Desire, and Problem to Be Solved
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I tried to write my first full Y.A. novel when I was still a young adult. The problem was, while I have never had writer’s block, I do have writer’s ADHD. I would get about thirty pages in, then want to try something else altogether. I went from mystery, to fantasy, to imitating Jane Austen, to Douglas Adams and back to mystery again until eventually I discovered poetry and decided to focus on that for about ten years . . .
Poetry mirrored my short bursts of creativity, as it allowed me to change tone, voice, form, etc. depending on my mood. It felt manageable. It recalls Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, which is to start with small assignments. Break things down “bird by bird” and go from there. The difference is, I only stick with the short assignments and keep them short. And this has worked for me. I’ve been published in a number of good, prestigious journals, and I’m happy with the wide field of literary challenges I get to wrap my words around in my writing life.
The Call to Action, Refusal, and Finally the Answering of the Call
A writing teacher told me that I had a voice for fiction, and I should put aside the poetry to try a longer piece. I told him about my writer’s ADHD, and assured him I would stick to poems, thank you very much. He was very kind and continued to work with me on poetry, but every once in a while would suggest I dip my pen into prose.
It was the very same ADHD that, on a plane ride about two years ago, asked for a change of pace, and I decided to try writing a novel in 30 days. It wasn’t NaNoWriMo. It was January and someone had given me a book for Christmas called Write Your Novel in a Month by Jeff Gerke. I was going to use everything I knew about writing poetry to be the reigning god of a more fleshed out fictional world (small control issues). But what world would I make? What story would I tell? Stories, I thought, are about action. Heroes slay dragons. Women rescue children. People make decisions. Anyone who knows me will tell you that making decisions has never been my strong suit.
There is very little “action” in my life. Just me, sitting at a desk, reading and writing. If there are dragons, they are all internal. If there are character arcs, they have to do with deciding whether to get another cup of coffee or squish the ant crawling across my laptop. But again, I was determined to learn whatever this story-writing thing had to teach me. So I did what I always do when I don’t know enough about the task at hand – I consulted the books.
What the books started to teach me at first was story structure. Most people are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey at this point, but I wanted to know if there was a female version, which led me to the Heroine’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. (It is interesting to note that in the Tarot “Virgin” simply means a woman who is unattached. Maybe it would be better re-named The Single Lady’s Secret with Beyonce accompaniment.)
Here’s the difference: In the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves the known world, battles a “dragon”, wins a prize, and returns a wiser man, with something valuable to give his community. The Virgin’s Promise is somewhat the converse. It starts with a woman who has something inside of her that she needs to bring forth. She doesn’t leave the world to find an external gift, she stays in her world, hiding her gift so as not to cause a fuss. Once her inner talents emerge, she faces a backlash, and she must find a way to compel her society to accept and receive what she has to offer them. The Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a marvelous example of this story structure.
As I started thinking about my own past I realized that I had the makings of a Heroine’s Journey already there. My novel was about how I became a poet, fell in love with an older writer, almost had an affair, got dumped, went on a road trip, and came back a wiser, sadder girl. As it turns out, elements of both the Hero’s and the Heroine’s Journey were already there. There was a character, goals I wanted to achieve, and obstacles that got in the way. There were teachers I met on the road, the sarcastic friend (my college roommate) who questioned my choices, and a slew of talismans and other meaningful objects.
To a poet, I think a pen is a pretty good talisman, but there were others as well. None of them were as cool as a light-saber or ruby slippers, but my first set of car-keys gave me a whole new set of freedoms that were almost as magical and got me into almost as much trouble. The funny thing is, a lot of these traditional elements of the typical story structure were so obvious when I went looking for them. They happened out of order, it’s true, but they were all there, clear as day. All I had to do was “fix” the chronology, cut out the boring parts, and change a few key details to protect the innocent, enhance a theme, or just make the story more dramatic.
I also discovered that I still thought a lot like a poet. Many of the scenes and chapters I wrote remained quite short, and after editing, they were shorter still. I also discovered that many of the poems I was reading correlated quite nicely with the Hero’s Journey. There are many poems about entering a special world, awakening to new challenges and desires, confronting a shadow self, experiencing despair when all seems lost (tons of poems about that!), and resurfacing with a message, lesson or renewed strength. In fact, as an exercise I started sorting some of these poems to create a rough narrative throughline, creating prompts out of each one, and using them as little inspirations for my novel’s story beats. I later assembled those prompts and other material to create the NaNoWriMo curriculum I’ve been calling “Humor and Humanity” (more on that later).
As I moved through my story, I became less concerned with the overarching narrative and more interested in the moment to moment. Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, “What people really want is to know they are in the hands of a real person…one who has access to all of their feelings, joy, sadness, etc.” My focus became more about small moments that revealed a character, defined them, or changed them in some way. I focused on things like how they felt when they walked out the door on the first day of autumn; what they remembered about their childhood. My aim was to craft beautiful pages and sensory imagery and moments that revealed who this main character was, and to let the story unfold from there.
But could all of these pieces actually come together to form a full narrative? With a through-line? A beginning, a middle, and an end?
The Reversal of Fortunes
I didn’t quite make my original thirty-day goal, but I decided to make my 35th birthday into the deadline for a first draft. I actually showed up late to my family birthday dinner because I was in a coffee shop, two blocks from the restaurant, furiously grinding through the final scene.
The next day I was in therapy with my amazing counselor, explaining to her all of the intricate details of my novel, how I had entered a new world, met teachers, learned lessons, fought my emotional fire-breather, vanquished it for good, was totally done with all of my deep insecurities about becoming an adult and a real poet, and come out stronger. I felt deeply proud.
She looked at me a moment, then said, “Based on all the work we’ve done, it sounds like you’re actually still in act two. I don’t think you’ve fully slayed that dragon. Yet”
I looked at her. I blinked and realized the insightful bitch was right. I had to delve deeper into my character to find the real truth about why I had made those mistakes in my early twenties, so that I could really learn from them, and emerge finally, a full adult.
All is Lost
As luck would have it, a few months later, someone stole my laptop. And just to make the narrative convenience even more convenient, this happened the same week my husband had us between data storage services, so my entire first draft was mort de créche. Kaput. Gone with the wind. Talk about an “all is lost” moment. Talk about entering a cave. If the main problem that my “character” faced was an inability to stick to something for the long haul, here was the perfect chance to go the easy route. I could cut bait and run. I could fall back into my safety zone and started over with a new project, or I could drive a sword into my fear of commitment and started to re-piece the whole thing together again, from scratch.
I battled with some serious despair and self-doubt. I felt personally embarrassed about the story I was telling. I thought “nobody wants to hear this so why bother recreating it?”
Then, a friend texted with some woes of his own. He was in a bad love triangle, heartsick, and totally embarrassed by the depth of his despair. “Nobody else knows what I’m going through,” he said. “I’m the only one who feels this way, and I’ll never get out of it. I’m such a loser.” I had to laugh, which he fortunately couldn’t see in a text.
“Friend,” I confided, “You are absolutely not the only person feeling this way.” I shared with him the short version of the story that thief had stolen from me, which seemed to bring him some comfort. The next day I re-started my novel, if for no other reason than to assure my friend, and others like him, that he was not alone. Someone else had gone through what he had gone through and had survived.
On another long plane ride with my new laptop, I filled in all the rough details from my vanished draft, which taught me something important. The parts I had written before that I really liked were practically engraved upon my heart and were actually quite easy to remember and recreate. In fact, remaking them was fun because I got to relive them and the joys of writing about them. For the rest of it, it turns out, good riddance. I recalled reading about the process Lauren Groff follows for writing her novels. After she finishes a first draft, she sets it aside and starts out with a blank page all over again. I had discovered the great advantage of her writing tool accidentally.
Discovering the Treasure
So. Did I finish an actual novel? Well, yes. And no. And we’ll see.
By the time I had left behind all of the pieces of my draft that hadn’t risen to be part of my second attempt, I found I was left with a pretty sturdy 33-page short story in a voice I thought was believable and whole, with a fully-formed character at its center. More importantly, I learned that the experience of writing a longer piece became infinitely less daunting when I set aside the plot mechanics and character arcs and instead focused on one or two pages at a time – one or two moments, one or two beats. I could just concentrate on the truth of a scene, a feeling, a single revelation in the protagonist’s life and allow the larger story to grow from those seeds. The more personal impact this process had, I started seeing myself as a real character, a soul inside the Heroine’s Journey, the center of my own narrative. I started seeing the structure and wisdom available in my life experiences that I withstood in order to return with a gift for others.
The Treasure Itself
Aside from writing the rough draft of that vulnerable story about my journey into adulthood, I came back with another treasure. I had “Humor and Humanity.” I dropped a trail of breadcrumbs as I walked through the woods of this experience, which became a useful guide I realized could help other writers delve into their own creative stories – whether in poetry, fiction, biography or “semi-autobiographical fiction.” It’s that curriculum I want to offer this November for NaNoWriMo to all the members of The Poetry Salon. See below for details.
If you’re interested in getting this unique guide to writing your longer manuscript, you can register for our upcoming FREE workshops on both 10/25 and 11/1 by emailing me at Tresha@Thepoetrysalon.com.
In the meantime, try this exercise:
You know I wouldn’t tell you all of this without a writing prompt.
Tell the story of any relationship you’ve had that ended. This could be a past romantic relationship, or the death of someone you loved. It might even be the story of how you came to a town or new job and eventually left, or how some jerk stole your laptop with all your old drafts in it and what you did in response. Go through that story with either the Virgin’s Promise or The Hero’s Journey structure as a guide. How many of those pieces do you find already there in your story? Did you have a teacher or guide to help, a friend or ally? Was there a moment of choice? A time you entered a cave to fight your own figurative dragon? What beliefs did you have to question? What new strength or gifts did you discover, either externally or internally? Did they come from the external world or from revealing your own hidden talents, or both? If you’re in a hurry, don’t try to write the whole novel, just a line or two about each important element.
Are you surprised to find you have a full Hero’s/Heroine’s journey you’ve already lived through? Surprised to find you have already been a hero/heroine and that you have returned from an adventure with a novel inside?