“Dear mom. I hope you had a great time in Virginia. Did you do anything exciting? Or did you just write?”
Thus began an email I received this week while away at VCCA, a writers’ and artists’ colony in Virginia.
And from a phone conversation with the girls:
“How come you get to go fun places and we can’t come with you?”
I think in the girls’ minds, I’m at some kind of summer camp for writers — with bunk beds and swimming and arts and crafts. (Plus, probably, some “adult” stuff, like talking and drinking wine.) In a way, they’re right. To me, a residency like this is sort of like summer camp, complete with bugs. (There are stink bugs that scuttle around in the bedrooms and studios, stupid and bumbling, but harmless.) I take nature walks and eat meals with the other fellows — sometimes even at picnic tables, if it’s nice out.
But the main activities are writing and reading. And hitting one’s head against the wall, literally or figuratively, if one is having a bad writing day.
“I don’t think you’d have much fun if you came with me,” I told them. “You might like the fish pond and the frogs. And spotting baby bunnies. But other than that, I pretty much sit around all day writing.”
“Oh.” (Baffled. Why did I have to travel hundreds of miles away to do this?) “Are you done with your book yet?”
And then I got the immense pleasure of saying: Well, I finished the first draft.
I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!
It’s been two damned years and four freaking months, but I’m done. It’s horrible, like all good first drafts should be, but I’m hopeful that I can turn it not-so-horrible within the next year. Of course, even if I succeed in that, there’s no guarantee the book will get published, but I try not to think about that. Instead I like to be delusional and imagine it becoming a bestseller. And I will make millions and millions of dollars and start wearing eccentric hats and talking with an affected British accent and taking our family on vacations to castles in small, exquisite European city-states you’ve never heard of. That nobody has ever heard of. I will invent the city-states! And then buy them!
I’ve got big plans, people.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, this novel involves a child with cancer, although it’s a child from life circumstances starkly different than my own children’s. I suppose I could have written a memoir about our own crappy little boat trip through the murky waters of pediatric leukemia, but that idea didn’t feel intellectually or creatively stimulating. Still, there were and are aspects of the experience — and things I’ve learned and thoughts I’ve pondered — that I did want to explore. So I’m doing that, but through a different lens.
I don’t know. I worry that a book involving childhood cancer (not to mention other unfortunate circumstances) might seem unmarketably dark, even though there’s a somewhat hopeful ending. Then again, there have been books told from the point of view of dead children, children locked in rooms and kept captive for years, children killing other children in games orchestrated by an authoritarian state in a dystopian future. So maybe I can sneak this one through if it’s good enough.
There have been times when it has been painful, thinking back on our experience — especially the most difficult aspects and emotions — and channeling that rawness into the book. Other times, I feel surprisingly detached from it. That time in our life can feel so far away.
It was four whole years ago, right about now, that the cancer was starting to brew in a five-year-old Clio’s bones. An innocent spring, at the close of the girls’ preschool careers. They (and we) were gearing up to move on to the big kid realm of elementary school. (Our babies in the same school as prebubescent fifth graders! How was that possible?) We had a lovely summer planned. I had a new book to publicize.
Instead, we were sent on a detour through the strange land of the sick children and the discombobulated siblings and the falling-apart parents. Yet still, somehow, it all got to feel normal.
And it feels normal enough in retrospect that I can spend over two years reliving major aspects of it without losing my shit. The only occasional shit-losing, really, has been around my fear that the book is and will be horrible (nary a city-state for me!) and my utter exhaustion at plowing through the damned thing. Spinning a story out of thin air is the hardest part of writing for me.
But somehow, in the absurd, masochistic fashion of writers everywhere, I’ve actually found working on this draft — and finishing it, especially — incredibly satisfying.
So yes, Elsa and Clio, I’ve been doing something kind of fun. And it’s just writing.