The authors I admire the most take the biggest risks. They aren’t fearless. They experience fear and they head into the unknown anyway, feeling their way in the dark.
When Michael Cunningham began writing The Hours, which started out as a contemporary retelling of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, he knew all the ways it could go wrong. Cunningham told The Guardian in 2011, “I approached the idea with appropriate nervousness. For one thing, if one stands that close to a genius, one is likely to look even tinier than one actually is. For another, I am a man, and Woolf was not only a great writer but is a feminist icon. There has long been a certain sense that she belongs to women. … With my misgivings firmly in place, I decided that it was better to risk going down in lurid blue-green flames than to write the book one knows one is able to write. And so, I set out.”
I love that open admission—that one may go down in flames. I’ve had the same feeling every time I’ve started a novel, but even more so when I’ve written about someone famous. Who am I to write about a famous novelist, poet, cellist, or psychologist? How dare I try to say something new, especially when it comes to iconic people or events that have been written about before?
As Cunningham discovered, even after he took the risk and wrote a competent story, his task was nowhere near complete. Something was still missing.
To his contemporary story he added a historical strand, creating a “diptych.” In the past storyline, he decided to feature Virginia Woolf herself.
It’s a clever structure. How many of us would have stopped there, feeling we’d produced something new?
But Cunningham wasn’t satisfied. Adding a historical element didn’t bring the novel to life.
E.L. Doctorow, renowned for his flexible, taboo-busting approach to historical fiction, felt the same way when he first tried writing The Book of Daniel, about the famous Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial, which ended in the couple’s execution. Doctorow wrote 150 pages of straightforward dramatization of the Rosenbergs’ lives. The result was a failure. He wanted to “throw the manuscript on a fire,” according to a 2015 Guardian article. Then a new idea came to him: to tell the story in an entirely different way, in the voice of Daniel, their son, decades later. A mostly historical novel became a mostly contemporary one. The book was a breakout success.
But back to Cunningham, whose problem was more subtle than Doctorow’s. In the former writer’s draft, it wasn’t that everything was wrong. It just wasn’t right. “It stubbornly remained an idea for a novel, rather than an actual novel.”
“At that point,” the writer explains, “I pretty much decided to let it go, and write another book instead. But one morning, sitting at my computer, I allowed my mind to wander into questions about why Woolf meant so much to me, enough that I’d spent the better part of a year writing a doomed novel about her and her work. … What, then, was the matter with me? Sitting at my computer, I pictured Clarissa Dalloway, and pictured Woolf, her creator, standing behind her. And then, unbidden, I imagined my mother standing behind Woolf.”
Cunningham’s mother became the inspiration for Laura Brown, the 1950s housewife that made his now-triptych whole.
When I stumbled across the interview about Cunningham’s process, it stunned and delighted me. Of all three characters in the novel—and the excellent movie adaptation—it’s Laura Brown who I think of first. Even though I adore Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown is the character whose plight leaves me sobbing. That final insight of Cunningham’s didn’t just add a nice extra layer to an already smart novel. That extra layer—for this reader at least—was the heart of the matter.
How do we fix a novel that’s broken—a historical novel, in the case of these two examples?
Doctorow, needing to breathe life into a trial that had happened twenty years earlier, leaned into the present, and the voice of a newer generation: the son living out the consequences of his parents’ lives.
Cunningham, needing to save what was coming across as a bloodless “literary exercise,” turned to his own autobiography: the story of his mother.
Both realized something wasn’t working. Both remained faithful to the seed of their idea. But both were willing to throw away pages, to invent new characters and completely up-end more conservative structures. How far they must have felt, at times, from telling the stories they were burning to tell. But how close they were to succeeding.
These are the stories I think about as a book coach, when I face the difficult task of telling clients that their manuscripts are not working. I never put it that bluntly or briefly. Instead, I analyze manuscripts in terms of many elements of craft, including voice, premise, story, characterization, language and theme. Every manuscript has strengths and weaknesses. Often, there is an undeveloped quality—some essential ingredient missing. But that doesn’t mean the author should feel hopeless, or that she has wasted time, or that she isn’t exactly where she needs to be, at this particular juncture.
A novel or memoir manuscript that has lots of problems isn’t necessarily on a fatally wrong track. Authors often take wrong turns, but those turns end up being necessary detours in the process of discovery-drafting. Doctorow didn’t think, at first, about writing a story from a young man’s perspective. Cunningham had no idea, at first, that the woman pursuing an impossible ideal wasn’t just Mrs. Dalloway, it was his own mother. I don’t have proof, but I believe they couldn’t have rushed these insights.
As Doctorow said, “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing.”
Keep going, I remind my clients, and myself. Sometimes, it will take more drafts—and more years than you can count. Don’t think about that. Feel your way into the heart of the story—the reason you needed to write it in the first place, the lessons from events not yet recounted, the voices of characters who haven’t yet spoken.
Something remains to be said—maybe the most important thing. Find out what it is.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five historical novels translated in 11 languages. In July, she’ll be teaching a two-hour online seminar, Historical Fiction: A Crash Course, for Lafayette Writing Studio.