As you may or may not know, there is no shortage of writing advice. This makes a certain kind of sense, given that the people writing the writing advice are writers, and that’s kind of what writers do—write stuff. Much of this advice is dreary, pompous or even, on a certain kind of day, embittering. Much of it is contradictory. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Write 1,000 words a day, 5,000 words a day. Write with a brown-inked fountain pen in an unlined journal bound with the tanned hide of your own insufficiency. (Sigh.)
I am what I like to call a working writer, which means that I can’t enjoy the luxury, or so I like to grittily imagine, of such fainting-couch predicaments as “writer’s block.” I have deadlines. There is copy to write—for women’s magazines, admission offices, the raisin people (don’t ask).
But, then, I am lying a little bit, too. Because I recently pussyfooted into fiction, which I had written not at all since Judith Frank’s amazing Fiction 1 class in the spring of 1990, and I needed writing advice after all. Fiction was different, it turned out. Nonfiction is like those TV contests where you get a basket of pre-chosen ingredients to cook with: tangerines and meat and licorice, and it’s weird, but that’s what you have, so you make Anise-Scented Citrus Pork Chops. Or, in the real-life version, your baby barfed into the hood of your jacket, your best friend died, your raisin scones came out gritty. So those are the mandatory ingredients of your story.
Fiction, on the other hand. My god! There are no constraints. The whole world is your oyster, and you can’t complain about the materials at hand, given that it is all the materials ever. I am circling back to writing advice here. Because what happened was this: I wrote a book in which boy-and-girl 12-year-old best friends Walter and Frankie contrive to stay overnight in an IKEA store. I wanted it to be like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—that favorite book of my own childhood, in which the main characters spend a series of nights in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—only with a modern twist. My own children were obsessed with the IKEA catalogue, are still, study it like scripture, like they’ll be tested on the differences between an EKTORP sofa and a KNISLINGE sectional. There didn’t need to be more than IKEA in the story, as far as I was concerned, because even in Mixed-Up Files, I hadn’t cared about the rich-old-lady-stolen-Michelangelo subplot: I only wanted to hear about the kids sleeping in the elaborate historical bed, admiring the princess jewelry, washing in the famous fountain, fishing the wishing coins from that same fountain. The fun parts.
But something was missing from my book, and I understood this even before my editor said, “Something is missing from your book.” Something was wrong with my character Walter, and I didn’t know what it was. “Something is wrong with Walter,” I said to my husband in the middle of the night, as if Walter were a friend with a dark secret, and not a fictional child of my own making. And so, in order to figure out exactly what Walter’s problem was, I wrote. I did the kind of writing I learned in Professor Frank’s class: pen-to-paper, stream-of-consciousness, uncritical, unedited free-writing. The very kind of thing I hate to hear about, when fiction writers talk about their own invented stories and characters as if they exist in some sort of Jungian stream that must be channeled into the under-irrigated fields of their own imagination. But I did exactly this. I wrote without knowing yet what I would turn out to know.
Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. I did both. Because what I found out when I wrote it was this: Walter’s father has died. This was a crazy coincidence, because just months earlier, my own best friend of 40 years had died, saying all the exact same kinds of heartbreaking and funny things in hospice that Walter’s dad said when he was dying! And you are likely thinking: This does not actually describe a very mystical process. It sounds more like the fortuneteller in The Wizard of Oz amazing Dorothy with his insight after secretly rooting through her basket of photographs. (“There’s a woman. She’s wearing a polka-dot dress. Her face is careworn.” “That’s Aunt Em.” “Yes. Her name is Emily.”)
But it was both things.
I did and also did not know my own story. And so I wrote my way out of a certain kind of stuckness in my novel. I wrote my way out of a certain kind of stuckness in my life. Grief is what you might properly call that second kind of stuckness, and out is not exactly where I ended up. Closer to fine, though, if I can quote the Indigo Girls (who were also a part of that Fiction 1 spring at Amherst). Closer, like Walter, to friendship and memory than to obliterating sadness. For me, writing a novel turned out to be part real and part made-up, with a big, annoying dusting of magic, like someone had come around with the gigantic hocus-pocus mill to see if I wanted some freshly ground onto my work. And I guess the answer was yes. I did.
Catherine Newman ’90 is the author of the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night (Random House, 2017).