Novel Inc, News from the Novel Incubator: Writing Through the Wrongs

By Kelly Ford

At the age of ten, I learned about shame.

Three things happened: I wore “I love Michael Jackson” buttons on my jean jacket, recorded dirty jokes over my Culture Club cassette tape, and took showers with my best friend. In 1980s Arkansas, these three things were all kinds of wrong.

I was called names for the first, grounded for the second. "Stop doing that," my parents said for the third. Because they gave no reason, I had no idea what I’d done wrong. The feeling that welled up in my chest warned me that this offense was the worst. I burrowed down, traded my “wild” demeanor for “quiet, polite, still.” I didn’t rage. Rather, I spent years after in a state of constant confusion and tried to avoid anything that might look or sound "wrong."

Where I’m from, if you’re not getting paid for your time, you're a damn fool. Sometimes, nothing feels more foolish than writing a novel. How do you tell a friend that you’d rather spend time with someone who only exists on your laptop? If you claim the title “writer,” everyone wants to know what you’ve written. Unless you’re published, “nothing” seems to be the right answer.

I treated my writing as the kind of nasty secret that ruins the reputation of a nineteenth-century woman. I wrote poetry for years in secret. I began a novel, but didn’t tell anyone. I took classes at Grub Street on the sly. Most days, I felt like that poor soul perched in the casino on a gorgeous summer afternoon, pulling the slot machine lever repeatedly and hoping that, by the end of the day, I'll see a small payout.

The Novel Incubator pilot was that payout, laced with panic. All anyone had read of my novel were scenes. With a full novel critique, there’s no hiding clumsy structure or poor pacing. It meant turning over years of solitary work and praying the story wasn’t a) boring, b) silly or c) shameful. Throughout the night of my workshop, I kept thinking about the first time I took a figure drawing class. Only I was the one naked in the middle of the room while everyone pinched and poked and drew my worst features in the most stunning detail.

If that had been the last class of a ten-week workshop instead of a year-long program, I would have avoided my novel for at least six months, my classmates and instructors forever. I would have proclaimed to quit writing and agonizing over such luxury problems as pronoun usage. But, I would have gone back to writing eventually because there’s no one I like to torture so much as myself.

Instead of tormenting the people closest to me, I tormented my instructors, Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover. While my classmates workshopped scenes, I used my meetings with Lisa and Michelle as writing therapy. I emotionalized my fear that no amount of instruction or hard work could push me beyond “potential.” I couldn’t move past my pain, and I hated myself for that. I’d clocked six years and three previous drafts that bore little resemblance to the draft that came before. I wanted to fix the novel upon a funeral pyre. Donate it to the Museum of Bad Art. Create my own state fair sideshow. The novel pages would line the dirt floor of my cage. I’d spit and curse at passersby. The banner would read: See the shocking and heartbreaking victim of her own novel!

Neither Lisa nor Michelle indulged my fantasies. Instead, they folded their hands and waited for me to compose the blubbering-in-public mess of myself. They didn’t tell me to pull myself together or suggest I take up knitting instead. They told me something worse, the truth.

All those previous drafts had one thing in common that I tried – and failed – to avoid: my narrator is a southern woman struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. Every time the narrative veered too closely to that old feeling of "wrong," I fork-lifted heaping piles of plot in an attempt to cover it up. Both Lisa and Michelle pegged my problem and challenged me to write that story.

I didn’t want my character’s sexuality to be a focus. That’s a J.V. move, I told them. I’d been writing for years; I was too old for that. The truth was, every time I wrote toward my character’s desire, the writing wasn’t hard. I didn’t notice when time passed. But when I reread it, a voice said, “Stop doing that.” What became clear by the third quarter of class startled and saddened me: I was ashamed of my novel. Myself. The old habit of pushing away anything that felt wrong had crept in, suppressing all joy from the novel and the writing of it.

For the fourth draft, I surrendered. No more copying and pasting from other drafts. No more hiding. I wrote the story that had been clawing at me. When the final workshop rolled around, I didn’t feel embarrassed. For the first time in six years, the draft felt solid.

Now that class has ended, I try to avoid the mistakes of drafts past and spend less time in despair. I meet with my classmates, who are now lifetime readers. I reach out to my writing partner to cheer me through the more private pains of the craft. Instead of beating down my own voice, I beat down the nagging voice of shame. I write through the wrongs until I hit the parts that feel right.

The Novel Incubator is Grub Street’s year-long intensive course in the novel for writers with a completed novel manuscript, team-taught by Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover. Deadline for applications is in February. For more information, go to www.grubstreet.org/index.php?id=1285.

Kelly Ford recently completed Grub Street’s pilot year of the Novel Incubator Program and is revising her first novel, Cottonmouths. She received a 2011 Literature Fellowship Grant from the Somerville Arts Council and can be found tumblin’ at www.kellyjford.com.

About the Author

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