Last week was nuts. I had my thesis defense, which was surprisingly awesome, and so very helpful. It was also the first time I've ever had to write an aesthetic statement, which was a very weird thing for me to do. There's not a standard format or anything, so I just decided to wing it.
The English major in me wonders... what's the past tense of "wing it?" I "wung" it? "Winged" it?
Haha. Oh, the dilemmas of my life.
The story you will hear today is the most important thing I have ever written. Not because it’s the longest (it is, but more on that later), or even because it’s the best, but because it’s the story I’ve been trying to tell for so long. I’ve written versions and snippets of this story hundreds of times, in short stories, poems, and flash fiction pieces. Every time, it felt like there was too much going on. I wanted to tell the whole story, but I didn’t know how to get it all down in so few pages. I spent my first year in the program trying to tighten everything up, get my sentences to somersault across the decades, develop my characters in a paragraph or a handful of images.
I wasn’t always successful. The workshop developed a refrain: “Too many stories here!” “What’s this really about?” After getting the same feedback a few hundred times, I realized that, yes, there was too much going on in my stories. I grew up in two different homes, and I was so comfortable with change that I had no trouble flashing back and forth between scenes, having eight characters appear by page two, and having parallel worlds with separate sets of tensions. But, my readers weren’t as willing to rocket around the narrative as I was. I had not yet learned how to organize my unwieldy story, manage so many people, or balance the back-story with the present moment.
I kept at it, though. Finally, at the end of fall quarter this year, I realized that I couldn’t say everything I wanted to in twenty-five pages. I couldn’t say it in fifty. So, I called Pam, in a panic, and put this project on a wildly different course. And now, here we are.
Before I wrote The Real Sister, I had never written anything over thirty pages. My approach has been clumsy at best, but this time, it feels right. It feels far more honest, more real, than any of the other versions I tried to write. I feel like I’ve found the time and space to render my characters in all their complexity, as well as the disparate worlds that they inhabit. The Real Sister spans fifteen years, and tells the story of six characters in three radically different households. The novel form has allowed me to hone my aesthetic goals: to start to render the world in a way that feels right to me. I’m learning to render a world that is fractured and patched, where every minute of the past informs the present moment, where conversations with six people are the norm, not the exception.
To prepare myself for the task of writing a novel, I stood on the shoulders of giants. I read My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates, and learned the ways a narrator can toggle back and forth between telling a story in retrospect and then narrating again in the present moment. I read Ha Jin’s Waiting and learned about the ways that a story can operate in the past without losing its momentum. I re-read Toni Morrison’s Jazz and was reminded of the ways her long, lyric sentences can make the back of my neck itch. I read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and learned the meaning of “quiting,” a word which can mean both repaying a debt and taking revenge. I became particularly interested in the ways that Chaucer’s characters use story telling as a means to “quite” one another, and the way his repetition of words and images creates a continuous thread throughout the separate tales.
When I began my story, I was primarily interested in capturing the relationship between Jamie and her ‘stepsister,’ Alexis. When Jamie and Alexis meet as children, they already display markedly different temperaments: Jamie is stubborn, calculating, and reserved, where Alexis is spontaneous, indecisive, and exciting. As the girls mature, they become increasingly competitive, and their personalities become even more polarized: yet they remain deeply attached to one another. However, as I wrote, I discovered tensions and chemistry in places I hadn’t planned on: between Jamie and her brother, Luke, between Anne and Tina, even Walter and Sean.
Through their relationships, I explored issues of nature and nurture, the effects of place and micro-cultures on the people who live in them, and the malleability of time. While I thought I was writing a pretty traditional bildungsroman, now I think I’m reaching for larger themes: how people are simultaneously products of their environments and their genetics. I am interested in the degree of control that individuals can exert over their actions and desires, their emotions, and their destinies.
I am also interested in issues of loyalty, forgiveness, siblings defining themselves in opposition to each other, and what constitutes a “real” family. I am interested in the ways families redefine themselves, and the rifts they must negotiate around, the wounds that will either heal like bones, and always have a weak spot, or heal like muscles, and grow back stronger.
This novel is very much a work in progress. As I was writing, I did not take much time to revise, because it felt like I was rearranging furniture in a house that wasn’t yet built. However, now that it’s all on paper, I plan to do serious revision. I know there are several areas I need to address: primarily, the pacing, and Jamie’s father, who just drops out of the narrative without any explanation or fanfare. I need to examine the relationships in the story, and make sure I’m pushing all the tensions to the surface.
Finally, I would like to thank everyone who stood by me during this whole process, and made this day possible. I want to thank my family, Mom and Donry and Laura and Terren and Adam, for giving me a place to start and filling my childhood with enough material to keep me writing into the next millennium. I want to thank Ed for cheering me on every morning, forcing me to read Russian writers, and making the best cappuccinos in Mountain View. I want to thank Pam for her unwavering faith and support, for the time she pulled me aside as an undergrad, took me to Ciocolat and said, You can do this, if you want to. I want to thank Joe for introducing me to Toni Morrison (way back in 2002), and Beth for helping me think more critically about my own work. I want to thank Carey Newman, who called me the day after I turned in a story for workshop, and said, Girl, you need to write a novel. Finally, I want to thank everyone who has ever read and reacted to one of my stories, I want to thank you a thousand times, because without you, none of this would have ever happened.