Some time back I was invited to contribute some pieces for another blog. I immediately outlined my first piece (“Dateline: Query Hell,” so titled for obvious reasons), and my second (“Dateline: Unsold Novel Hell”), about what it’s like to sit hoping for a call from my agent saying my debut novel, The Angry Woman Suite, has sold.
But turns out I didn’t submit those particular pieces after all, primarily due to a sudden line that moved into my head having zip to do with queries or agents, and everything to do with dumping outlines that can immobilize us as writers. That line is:
Tell the one about getting so mired in your own brilliant notes that you couldn’t move forward, backward, anywhere, until a big bad headwind knocked you flat, and then and only then did two simple “saving” words pop into your nimrod brain.
Those two simple words were meant to transition a relationship between a protagonist of The Angry Woman Suite, Elyse Grayson, and her controlling father. It’s a scene I’d actually written several gadzillion times, because this scene—Elyse’s scene—had been a monster, impossible to nail. Yet, armed with my outline to keep me on point, I’d kept going back into the scene, feeling my way through a valley of words, searching for those phrases meant to convey game, set, match for Elyse Grayson—and, oh, to be delivered in an above-the-fray manner, too. Sounds easy-peasy, right?
Oh. So. Wrong. I struggled.
And then I heard a simple “Goodbye, Daddy” on the night wind, like a prompting. I typed the words, glanced at the time: 8:42 p.m. Though they didn’t interface with my outline at all, they were monster-smashing perfect—yet, I felt strangely depleted, not elated. Not only because “Goodbye, Daddy,” had just opened a window onto the resolution of my novel, putting me thisclose to ending my daily visits with Elyse Grayson, but because it felt as if something else was also pulling away from me—but what?
Almost everyone who’s read The Angry Woman Suite has asked if I’m Elyse Grayson.
The answer is I’m not.
And I am. We’re connected—everything’s connected.
At exactly 8:50 p.m. that same night my phone rang, and I had a premonition: I suddenly knew why I felt so gut-emptying awful when I should’ve been feeling celebratory.
Hello?” Heart thumping, I looked again at the time. 8:51 p.m.
Someone from my father’s new life told me rather coldly that he’d just died.
Damn—no, double damn . . . and oh, geez, the irony . . . how often does something like that happen? Writing an actual hard goodbye heard on the wind mere moments before a real goodbye? A whole life kind of goodbye. And that voice I’d heard on that wind? It wasn’t unfamiliar. . . .
My relationship with my father had been a neurotic mess. He’d been the neurotic, and I’d been the mess, and eventually we’d fallen away from each other, never speaking of why in detail, never actually speaking, never “officially” finishing us.
I looked up at my screen, at Elyse Grayson’s words, “Goodbye, Daddy,” and I wept, finally. For my father. For me. For never being able to play on the same field, for now being finished, and for my novel being almost finished too—they are linked. Big caterwauling vessels of tears I’d kept stored inside for eons, and was always tending, always checking for cracks, hyper-vigilant against leaks.
Later, I filed away what had become a totally non-helpful outline of The Angry Woman Suite, and invited my inside voices to line up again for closer examination. And that’s when those final chapters of The Angry Woman Suite also fell into place, not as initially planned, but as inspired by Elyse Grayson’s “Goodbye, Daddy,” on the night my father died.
To anyone who’s asked me how in the world one ever finally finishes a novel, I’ve laughed and answered, “Don’t be afraid.”
Because these stories, Elyse’s and mine, are both about letting go. Not just of outlines, and stubborn positions, and control, but fear of failing, and fear of rejection, and fear of the unknowable. It’s entirely possible I might never have known this (the way I think I know it now) had I not been emptied enough to hear a prompting delivered by a long-missed voice on a night wind.
So consider setting aside The Plan—go ahead, try it—and letting your voices free to soar above what you’ve spent countless hours planning (whatever it is—doesn’t have to be a book). And then look at what you’ve got on the screen in front of you. The words left there might just be the freest, most monster-smashing ever.
And, yes (because someone just asked me), freest is a word (best kind, too).