Back when I wrote more often about education, I occasionally posted what I called “DUH research”—usually, reports of academic or clinical findings in education or cognitive psychology that seem so obvious to those of us who’ve spent any time at all paying attention to how our kids learn that it’s hard to believe anybody ever bothered with formal studies. Of course maniacal LEGO kids get to be good at visual geometry. Or those who play games like Yahtsee and poker get better at arithmetic and probability. Or kids who get enough food and sleep tend to be better adjusted and more capable than those who don’t. Duh, right?
My post today is a different kind of DUH post because the duh is aimed squarely at myself. I’ve been in a weird sort of funk or malaise for the past couple of months, not working much on the mystery novel that’s supposedly my main project these days, but not doing much of anything else, either. Which led eventually to a couple days ago, when I found myself on one of my occasional one-question-leads-to-another stream-of-consciousness meandering conversations with myself:
Why aren’t you working on the book?
Don’t want to.
Why don’t you work on something else?
Can’t, because I need to finish the book.
OK, then work on the book already.
Don’t want to.
Oh, get off it. “Want” has nothing to do with it—you get your fingers on the keyboard and get to work, and the work will get done.
But I don’t know where the story’s going.
A few hours passed like this, with the same basic questions bouncing around and around my brain, until I realized I have no story because there is no story. There are a few characters, composites not unlike many people i’ve know in the fencing world. There’s a setting, a national fencing championship tournament in a huge convention center concrete box, not unlike many I’ve worked through as an official and parent and spectator. There’s a lovingly crafted atmosphere that I’ve tweaked over and over to get the details just right.
And there’s a slight wisp of a plot with empty channels big enough to sail a cruise ship through.
That there is no story was not my big DUH epiphany, though. The big realization was that I DON’T CARE that I have no story. My revelation was that my book wasn’t a story at all, but therapy. I was involved in fencing—as a parent of a relatively accomplished athlete, as a volunteer official, as chair of a major national governance committee, as a member of the board of the national governing body—for over fifteen years. Fencing was a huge part of my life, both incredibly rewarding and unbelievably frustrating. Even though I finished my board term and resigned from my other fencing commitments more than three years ago, it was only last fall that the new fencing season started without me even noticing I wasn’t obsessively tracking national tournament entry numbers and event end times the way I usually did.
In 2009, my first draft was a lark and a catharsis. It was great and unexpected fun to write, not least because I realized that writing fiction—this was my first—could be even more fun than reading it. I was obsessed with it, constantly wanting to get back to work on it to find out what would happen with all my characters. The several abortive rewrite attempts over the next decade have been less fun, but often interesting and useful, and they taught me a ton about writing fiction, what does and doesn’t work and what is and isn’t publishable. Mostly, though, those rewrites were therapy, helping me complete my withdrawal from my fencing world addiction.
So, farewell, fencing manuscript. (Not totally goodbye, though—like most professional writers, I don’t ever throw any work away. I just pack it all into files and stash it in my abandoned/unpublished folder. You never know.)
I’m a teensy bit sorry to disappoint all my fencing friends who had volunteered to be beta readers. And it would have been fun to watch people try to figure out which real people my characters were based on, when none of them were based on real people. (Admittedly, a couple were at first inspired by real people, but that all disappeared in very early drafts.) But now all I have to do is figure out which of the half-dozen other projects rattling around my brain I want to tackle first.
This is going to be fun.