Digging in to the “ugly work”

Last night I sent an email to a friend, telling her that after eight days of labouring over the revision of a story, I had finally acknowledged that “nothing happens”. I had only three days left in the writing retreat in which the wrap-up of this manuscript was my main goal. The reply was waiting for me this morning: Sounds like you’ve dug into the ugly work. Good on you.

I had convinced myself that I was writing strong, and right on track with my deadline. I was polishing the penultimate pages when I was walloped with the sickening realization that my character was still carrying the same “want” I’d saddled him with in Chapter One. Sure, there had been crises along the way, and he’d sipped a little from the cup of Insight by the end of each chapter, but right to the final page—which was clearly in sight—he’d done nothing to earn the ending.

This is not a new experience. In every piece of fiction I write, it takes me many drafts to let the story loose on the page. Every story seems to demand a humbling moment. Look what you’re avoiding! Stop trying to wrestle this into submission. Stand back and let the kid do it his own way. The kid in this story is a 15 yr. old boy, trying desperately to find his voice. Metaphorically, you’d think this would have been an easy ride. And for the most part it was, because the story, at the stage it was at last night, was not terrible. In fact, it had the strength of a good character (funny and wise in his confusion) and a setting with enough detail to ground the story, and the tension of a stranger knocking on the door and turning a perfectly “normal” family upside down and inside out.

Why did it take me so long to settle in to the “ugly work”? I’m blaming weather. The snow and the snow and more snow that turned the beautiful studio in the forest which I’ve been allowed to inhabit into an enchanted place, has also kept me inside. For fear of breaking bones on icy trails, I have avoided the long walks that are as much a part of my writing as the fingers on the keyboard. It’s likely that had I walked for an hour each one of the first days, by day three, I would have had the moment of “Oh no” or “Aha!” that rushed me back to the page to cut the scenes that go no where, add the new ones that do, and finally write from inside Rufus, instead of pondering him from an authorial distance.

But the good news is that the necessary clobbering has happened, and I learned long ago that there is always time to tell the story the way it needs to be told.

In a few minutes I will walk through the trees to the studio, and dig into the “ugly work”, but today I’m taking the long way around. That rusty wheel that keeps me moving on the last mile still needs a push.