This post really is going to be about the process of writing a novel. I promise. It's just going to take a wee tangent to get there. "Trust me, I'm telling you stories."
Real stories make their way into fiction in strange ways sometimes.
So, I used to live in New York City. Brooklyn, to be precise, and Windsor Terrace to be really precise. I visit NYC a few times a year, most recently this past weekend. Now that I'm a visitor and not a resident, I periodically forget the Truth - yes, capital T - about New York. You see, when I visit, it's a whirlwind of nostalgia and friendship and art and food and wine (a lot of wine). The city lulls me into a false sense of security, and I start feeling pretty great, looking at the concrete jungle all lit up and vibrant, like the city itself is celebrating my return.
I was striding along Greenwich Avenue in the West Village on Monday, delighting in the crisp autumn air, the streaming bright sunshine, the hustle and noise and life of the city, when I failed to notice the neon orange construction cone standing in front of me on the sidewalk. I was too busy being confident, you see, to notice petty things like physical obstacles. So naturally, I stepped on the cone, whacked my arms against the nearest telephone pole to try to get my balance back, failed, and took a lovely swan dive across the concrete and landed flat on my face.
At least four people were standing within two feet of me when this happened. I imagine a couple of them probably had to jump out of the way to allow enough room for the full length of my swan dive, for which I am very grateful (it was an impressive dive). When I scraped my face off of the sidewalk, muttering something wise and witty, like "unngghhhh... my head....", I saw that every single one of these people was studiously watching the traffic light, and ignoring me. No one turned around. No one said a thing.
And then I remembered: oh right, this is New York City. It doesn't give a crap. New York won't celebrate my return. What it will do is stick a foot in front of me and trip me, then look at its nails and pretend it didn't see me go flying, just to remind me that it's way, way cooler than I am.
Well, truthfully, it is way cooler than I am, so that's OK.
I picked myself up, brushed myself off (uninjured, thankfully), had a good laugh at my own expense, and went back to Boston a humbler if slightly more irritated woman.
This is not to say that I didn't have a great weekend. I did. I was visiting one of my best friends, a fierce and fabulous force of nature who I'll call The New Messiah (and no harm or offense intended to anyone of any religion. It's just an old nickname). The New Messiah is one of my best critics. She gets the dubious honor of reading the first drafts of my writing, the ones that really should be chucked into a dark corner and hidden from all eyes except my own. She reads through the dreck, anyway, putting up with my worst habits, and gives me honest and constructive feedback.
She didn't read anything this weekend - I have no first drafts right now - but she did listen patiently as I fumbled through an explanation of my newest idea. We were standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn - the G train platform, which, for those of you uninitiated into the joys of the G, means that we had a nice, long, extended time to wait, and talk.
When I finished talking, she looked right at me, and said, "That sounds like a great idea. I'd read that book."
Now, whether or not this is true (and it is; the New Messiah is many things, but she is not a liar. If she hated the idea, she would tell me. This is another reason why she gets to read my first drafts), this a great thing to say to an insecure writer.
And then, she did the next great thing you can do for a writer: she talked through my idea with me, ad nauseum. She asked excellent questions, gave thought-provoking suggestions, and by the time the G showed up (only 17 hours later, no biggie), I felt like it might actually be possible to pull this damn idea off.
I know it seems roundabout, but this whole story really is central to the process of writing a novel.
You see, there's a great myth that writers are solitary creatures. We are, to some extent; we do work alone. But very few of us write alone. For me, my friends are essential and much-valued parts of my process. They act as sounding-boards and collaborators; they edit and proofread and cheerlead and tell me the awful truth when no one else will. And I love them for it, and I never get through the outlining process without them.
Oh, yeah - the part about face-planting on the sidewalk? Yeah, that's not about my friends or my process. Sorry. BUT, I will almost definitely be putting a scene like that - with that feeling, equal parts irritation and humor, and that memory of being ignored by the giant, ever-turning city - into a book. So you see, it really all is related.