Two Smart Women Who Weren’t Smart Enough Not to Try Writing A Novel Together

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A photograph of Alison with my cat, Isaac.







One morning I received an email from my friend, Alison.  Alison and I frequently exchange emails, which we both enjoy, so I opened this one with pleasure.  In it, she recounted a dream she had the night before and concluded with this statement: “I do not often dream of the dead.”

I couldn’t resist saying that would be a very good opening line for a book.  She responded that she intended to begin her memoirs with that line, to be followed by, “But I wonder if they often dream of me.”

I countered with:

The woman at the carefully laid table in the small, overpriced Manhattan eatery, looked directly at her companion and said, just loud enough to be heard, ‘I do not often dream of the dead.’ She was at least 80, small and very thin, cheekbones showing the outlines of a face whose beauty even the ravages of age and a lifetime of taking her looks for granted couldn’t hide. Her Chanel suit, years out of date, was frayed at the collar, which reflected not a lack of funds but her refusal to keep herself ‘up-to-date’.

‘I do not often dream of the dead,’ the old woman repeated, talking to herself now.  ‘But I wonder whether they ever dream of me?'”

Alison added, “I am, after all, a woman who has blood on her hands.”

And we soon found ourselves, two very different kinds of thinkers, two very different kinds of writers, a prologue and two chapters into a novel.  At that point, we had agreed on almost nothing, but I wasn’t yet alarmed.  Alison commented that

“We are after all two women who prefer to live alone and have our own way.
Fortunately we have too much respect for each other to say Are you out of your mind?
Instead it is a quiet literary tug of war, one step forward, two steps back, enjoying the uncharted journey.”

On March 28th, after a particularly heated disagreement during which Alison declared that she didn’t see any point in writing anything because I overruled whatever she wrote, and I countered with “You apparently don’t even read what I write since I’ve asked repeatedly that you not send me long elaborate outlines of multiple options for unwritten chapters,” I sent a long email in which I announced that we were going to stop working on the novel immediately as it was threatening our friendship.

On March 29th, we resumed writing and Alison completed Chapter Two.

On March 30th, I sent her my draft of Chapter Three.

We are naming our major characters after pets, past and present: Samantha, Gordon, Isaac, Leaf.

Twice more I declared the shared writing a failed experiment and declared the project closed. Twice more, we somehow picked it back up and resumed writing.

It is the first of April, a cousin’s birthday. Today I have waked up for the second day in a row from a long night of terrible, disturbing dreams.  I make a list of anything that has changed that might be causing this.

But it is the writing of this novel that has me the most disturbed.  I can’t seem to get any distance on the characters. I defend my writing about the central character, Samantha, who is named after one of Alison’s cat’s, as if fighting for my life.  We meet Samantha when she is 85 years old, sitting in a restaurant with her grandson, who is an attorney.  He is trying to get her to talk about something that obviously happened many years earlier but has surfaced recently in the form of a lawsuit either against Samantha or against the family’s prominent publishing house.

As we write, the cast of characters emerges. This is shaping up as one of those multi-generational family sagas. At the table in the restaurant that first day are Samantha’s son, grandson, and great-grandson.  They are there to discuss the lawsuit. They take on flesh.  They become real people, each with a story of his own.  But Samantha remains at the center.

We continue to write and on April 4 when Alison comes over we have in hand seven chapters, nearly 70 pages of a story.

We have an incredibly productive work session during which we discover that, after a week of writing and editing, sending the manuscript back and forth, we have somehow come together on the whole thing.  And we are developing a real “feel” for the characters.

By the time Alison left, we had read through our first seven chapters, made a few changes here and there, and were able to set that much aside for the time being, ready to move forward.  Next up, I will write Chapter Eight and Alison will begin writing chapters that she imagines and which we’ll figure out how to place somewhere down the road.

Our two different styles and approaches, the very dynamic that nearly imploded, has emerged as the great strength of the writing partnership.  I had, almost from the beginning, an intuitive connection to the characters; I saw them and heard them and understood them.  Alison kept saying she just didn’t relate to them, couldn’t see where they were going.  So my intuitive approach kept us writing and kept me fighting for my clearer vision until Alison, by her own road of thinking and planning, came to her own identification with the characters. She was then able to bring them to life–both in actions and in dialogue–that made my vague feelings accessible to a reader in ways I couldn’t have managed.

Alison is a master at writing dialogue.  I am equally good at writing narrative and description.  Voila! A novel is born.

Wednesday 5 April

After a few hours’ work on Chapter Eight, I find I am mired in deep mud. Having undertaken to write a chapter in Samantha’s voice, I trudge through what reads to me like a school exercise in writing in the first person.  The assignment: write an interior monologue for a character who is an 80-year-old woman, remembering an incident with her son when he was a teenager and had begun his first serious relationship with a girl. Chapter Seven ends when the narrator tells us that Charlie, the son, is keeping a secret from Samantha for the first time.  My chapter is to begin with Samantha remembering that time and thinking to herself, “Charlie thought he was keeping this new relationship a secret, but I knew almost from the beginning.”

This idea, which was entirely my own, made perfect sense to me and I was pleased with  the chance to write about Samantha in a more intimate way, to hear her thoughts rather than just describing them. The chance to have Samantha talk, even if it is to herself.  And talking to herself–and remembering–either silently or right out loud–are qualities we have developed about this character.  She lives alone, she is 85 years old and, like many old people she lives a good deal of the time in the past and in her memories of it.

This is a peach of a writing challenge. I seem unable to complete it.  And here is where my lifelong fear of writing fiction (I just don’t attempt it) lies–that I will just run out of steam, am incapable of developing characters or producing dialogue in any detail, am by nature a writer of short non-fiction.

Wednesday night, very late, I finally give up.  I head for bed.

Thursday 6 April
Worse trouble

I finished the chapter, still mildly dissatisfied but basically feeling it had come out much better than I feared and that any problems could be handled with some tweaks here and there.

I sent the chapter to Alison.

We spent what feels like the whole afternoon emailing back and forth, digging ourselves deeper into conflict, right back into by now recognizable patterns: she comments at length, and critically, about what I have written.  I get defensive and find myself justifying and explaining what seems perfectly clear to me.  I realize I can’t even hazard a guess as to what she is thinking on the other end of these disagreements, but I–once again–am invested in Samantha’s character and feel a misunderstanding of her is a misunderstanding of me.

I am learning something–well, I expect I’m learning a good many somethings–from this process, wherever it ends up.  I am coming to understand completely why writers of novels drink and go mad.  This is a whole other world, a parallel universe into which I have wandered, unsuspecting, and in which I find myself at sea.

I am reminded of the ancient stories of goddesses–Inana,  Persephone, Ceres–who go into the underworld and can’t find the way out.  And they are always warned not to eat anything while there, because taking something of that place inside themselves is what will trap them there forever.  I think I might have already taken a nibble too many.

At the end of the day, having sent the manuscript back and forth too many times, we decide not to even look at it anymore until tomorrow.  I have a medical procedure scheduled for the morning and may not be back on the computer until Saturday.

A time-out.

Friday 7 April
No such thing as a time-out

Because I never really learned how not to work, never developed any skills for relaxing and doing nothing, I hardly ever actually allow myself a time-out.  Today was no different.  I got home from my shot, did a little harmless puttering around, then read two more emails from Alison.  At some point, I had already decided to cut my chapter with all her highlighting and comments out of the manuscript and save it to a separate document. I then pasted in my original chapter.  Placing them side by side on my laptop screen, I started the laborious process of re-reading and reconsidering my chapter with the goal of addressing her worries or discomfort as much as I possibly could without doing too much violence to my own voice and perceptions.  At a little before 2:00 I sent the manuscript off to Alison, crossing in transit an email from her saying she thought she had overreacted to the chapter.

I made myself a cup of tea and went to bed for a nap.

At this point, we soldier on, and I fully expect that this latest head-banging will get sorted out, we will have another good work session together, and the writing will continue–because we are both committed to this friendship, and we are both serious writers who are discovering new possibilities and new skills in this project.

I don’t know if this piece of writing will complete itself and become a novel.  We’ll just have to see how that plays out.  I am much more certain that the friendship will continue and will grow stronger.

So, what have I learned about writing so far? I have learned that fiction is not entirely beyond me. I have learned that, although I am weak at writing convincing dialogue, there is hope that I can learn.  I have reinforced my belief that good fiction grows from complex characters, richly developed.  I have learned that, for today at least, I lack certain skills for writing this kind of novel alone, and I have begun to identify some of the specific skills it would be necessary for me to acquire–planning and outlining at least a tentative plot, with major and minor characters and the beginning of ideas about how they will develop; I will have to work harder on dialogue and on a balance between dialogue and my instinctive narration and description.

I am not ready for a solo flight and, for today, I don’t need to be.  I have a very good friend, who is also an awfully fine writer, as a partner, and–in spite of our struggles–I, for one, am having a heck of a good time.






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11 Responses to "Two Smart Women Who Weren’t Smart Enough Not to Try Writing A Novel Together"
  1. dremadeoraich says:

    “I am coming to understand completely why writers of novels drink and go mad.” I cannot express my amusement at this, except to say that I almost snorted my oatmeal and fruit when I read it. It’s true. We do drink. I’m still working on the “mad” part. Thanks …. loved reading this.

  2. Kat Varn says:

    Completely get the other dimension of being a wordsmith…… see you soon.

  3. Sounds challenging and fun. Looking forward to
    holding this book in my hands.

  4. Dean Robertson says:

    Hello, Ellen.

  5. Ellen Bunton says:

    It is true many great writers are also great drinkers. I’m not sure if the writing preceded the drinking or if the drinking preceded the writing. I admire you both because I can’t imagine writing a novel, must less trying to co-ordinate with someone else. It’s not like musicians where one handles the melody while the other fills in the words.

  6. javsimson says:

    Amazing story! I look forward to it. A writer friend and I once talked about collecting some of our short stories and publishing them together, but even that didn’t work. She has finally published a collection of her stories, about thirty years later. And I have a collection currently in press.

  7. Kasey Brady says:

    It strikes me that you’re writing a book within a book! Love it.

  8. How exciting! I admire your tenacity. When you have finished your novel, will you help me write mine? xxoo

  9. Wow, this is a brave thing to do. Writing a novel is such a personal thing that sharing the task feels pretty threatening to me. On the other hand, it sounds as if you’ve found a partner who is almost as much of a workaholic as you are. Impressive.

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