Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Wednesday Instructor: Rose Solari on Writing a Novel
Our guest blogger today is Rose Solari. Rose is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather, and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in many journals here and in the U.K., including Parnassus, Gargoyle, Poet Lore, The Mississippi Review, The Potomac Review, and Nth Position, and her poetry and prose have appeared in several anthologies, including American Poetry: The Next Generation; Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women; and Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Reader. Her other honors and awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize (selected by Philip Levine) and, in 2007, her third Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Grant. She has taught at The Writer's Center for fifteen years, and joined the board of directors there in 2006. She's leading three workshops at the Center this winter. Learn more here.
Her Web site is here.
And now Rose is here...
Though I’ve been a devoted lover of novels since I was ten years old, when Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre awakened me to states of mind and heart I didn’t know I knew, I was as surprised as my poet friends were when I decided to try to write a novel myself. After all, I’d been writing poetry since I could hold a pencil, but save for one “experimental” (read, unfinished) piece published in my undergraduate years, had never even produced a complete short story.
But while doing research some years ago for a magazine article on the changes that feminists in the Christian churches were working toward, I kept finding more and more material about their medieval predecessors, and about the great flowering of women’s mysticism and learning that rocked Christianity in 12th century Europe. In particular, I got hooked on tales of radical nuns, hundreds of years ahead of their time, who made their abbeys incubators for female intellect, creativity, and reform.
A research trip to England followed, conducted on a shoestring, with my then-boyfriend, now-husband as an eager compatriot. (Romantics, take heed: this is how to woo a writer.) We spent hours in the beautiful high-domed halls of the Bodleian, Oxford’s medieval library; we made pilgrimage to Glastonbury, to see the ruins of the great abbey that burned in 1184 and the pagan relics that surround it; we walked the high cliff ruins of Tintagel, on the Cornish coast, a medieval castle where King Arthur is said to have been conceived. I returned with a pile of notebooks and the bones of an idea: a story about a medieval nun with mystical powers and radical ideas, and of the contemporary woman who comes into possession of fragments of her story and goes on a journey of her own to recover the rest.
But if research is the courtship phase, giddy and full of surprises, then settling down to write the novel is the hard work of commitment. And though writing is writing, I found many differences between my relationship with this new love, the novel, and my work in poetry.
The biggest difference is time and how I use it, or rather how the writing uses it. Never the best multi-tasker, I find it hard to work on fiction and poetry in the same day — each one requires a complete absorption, a giving over to its own unique demands. I’ve always loved what the late John Gardner had to say about a successful work of fiction having the quality of “a vivid and continuous dream,” and believe that good poetry has just that same elusive but undeniable quality. When in the making process, I find that one dream a day is just about all I can handle.
Then there’s question of quantity. I can accomplish a lot in an hour of concentrated work on a poem; an hour into working on the novel, I’m just getting my bearings in that other, fictional but oh, so real world. This is why, in part, I decided not to teach this fall. Even during my busiest teaching sessions, I can find chunks of time to devote to poetry. But the novel takes more. To write fiction, I spend longer and longer hours away from what we call “everyday life” — and yet a work of fiction, much more than poetry, seeks to portray everyday life.
In order to see my heroine as she traverses London’s Bloomsbury Square, I must resolutely not see my street, my neighborhood, my own daily life. Paradoxically, it is when I am most removed from real-world concerns and obligations that I can best bring to life the real worlds of my characters.
Still, some things are true for both kinds of writing. Talking too much or too specifically about a work in progress ruins it for me, whether it’s a poem or a chapter of the book. I’ve learned that the hard way. When the writing is going well, in whatever form, I am blessed by the particular and sacred happiness of doing something I feel I was born to do. And when it’s not going well — as in last week, when I rewrote a single, very important scene five times before discovering what the characters actually wanted to say — writing is still the most rewarding act that I can imagine. It teaches me new things every day. It requires stamina, discipline, courage, and skill, and like the best teachers, it keeps upping the ante: as soon as you achieve one level of competence, it asks you to reach higher.
Perhaps this is where my fascination with the religious life, and with one nun in particular, came from. Like her, I have a vocation. Like her, I have to follow it wherever it takes me. And oh, what a ride it is — one that I wouldn’t miss for the world.