*Draft four. Saying "I finished draft four" doesn't make a snappy title. People! I finished the fourth draft draft of my novel!
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I didn’t think I’d ever do this. I wrote the first real draft (I’ve been kicking around these characters + this story for over a decade) my senior year of college. I hammered out pages upon pages during lectures, and when I was studying, I’d make deals with myself: “Finish reading this article, and you can write for twenty minutes.” “Finish this section of your thesis, and you can write for the rest of the night.” When I finished that first draft, I was surprised to find myself at the end. I’d been following the rope so blindly that I hadn't stopped to ask myself what it was I creating. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, the end of the rope. I’d run out of story.
It was a brutally cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was the only person on the street when I walked to the nearest copy to print and bind my novel. I took a blue pen to my novel as soon as I got home. After a harrowing second and third draft that made me wonder if I even wanted to write, I made a big deal about putting this story aside to pursue other projects. Then I ran back to it for a week, because I felt like I'd failed my characters. Then I put it back on the shelf. Then I wrote 60 pages of something new in two months, and let it languish for three. I berated myself for not being able to make up my mind. I told myself that I had one month, and if I could pound out 20,000 words of draft four in that time, I could return to draft four. I spit out 30,000. Then I filled two steno pads with a new story so dark I had to quit writing it so I could stop dreaming about drowned children being pulled out of lakes. Then I knocked on the door again to see if my characters, my friends, would still visit me. This went on for years.
In March of this year, I wrote myself a note and put it on my bulletin board. You just need to bring Ana home. I gave myself a deadline: April 30. I blew it off, and gave myself another one: May 31. It stuck.
On May 28: 92,518 words.
This book has been the boyfriend I can’t quit, but it’s also been a lifeline to some of my darkest days. I was fourteen when my main character, Ana, came to me, flawed and broken and tired of running from herself. It took me until I was twenty-four to realize that I was writing my way through my own redemption.
I'm at odds with what I do next. Part of the reason I put this novel aside so many times is because I've genuinely wondered if I should look at this novel as my teacher, but use it as a springboard to create something new. Something, possibly, publishable. Not everything I write needs or deserves to see the light of day. But what I can't figure out is whether that's the case for this novel. I love my characters, and I think I've written a moving story about family, redemption, and loss. I also think I've written an overly complicated timeline that veers towards sentimentality, and maybe doesn't give my female character the autonomy she deserves. I just don't know.
I have a few people reading it right now, and I've asked (read: begged) them to give me an up or down vote on whether or not I work to get this story submission ready. I'm comfortable with the idea that no one beyond my family and close friends will read this novel, but I'm haunted at the prospect of making that decision.
(As an aside, hmu if you want to dive 292 pages deep into my brain and are willing to be more honest than mom/dad/boyfriend).
For all the "what's next" questions, I frankly don't really care about the quality of the work right now. It's enough that I wrote it. This scared, lonely woman came to me when I was fourteen and mourning the loss of a family home, and she stuck with me long enough to become a real person. I followed the rope she threw me through the dark. I followed it a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and for the first time, it feels like a real novel.
Last night, my boyfriend drove me through Wisconsin's rolling fields. He didn't realize this, but he took me to the land upon which I build my novel. We listened to Jason Isbell, the artist I leaned most heavily on for inspiration. He told me again, and again that he was proud, and I wondered if I was too. I spent this past week feeling proud, yes, and relieved, but also unmoored. I finished, but what I did I finish? I FINISHED, but have I? I finished, but what do I do now?
It seems symbolic, and almost providential that I finished now, as my partner and I stand on the cusp of our next act. This novel is so much a novel of Minnesota, of where I've been and what I've anchored myself to. I used this story, first, as a way to mourn the loss of a home that had been in my family for years, but as I continued to write, I used it to mourn -- and then reclaim -- the parts of myself I thought I'd lost. Years ago, I wrote " a woman does not let herself remain a broken thing," and then I made that same promise to myself.
It's a victory, people, even if I don't yet know what kind. I finished something big. finished it. Not gave up on it, not quit on it, not tried to forget about it. I stuck with my people, and they stuck with me, and if writing has taught me one thing it's that there's beauty in the attempt.