Learning when to let go…and whom to invite in.

Coloursong St Pete's 2016
in spiritu et veritate (Photo by Tracy Hamon)

Today is changeover day at St Peter’s.  I’ve had to bid a fond adieu to the writer’s headed for home, and soon a whole new gang will be arriving.

For a few hours, Tracy Hamon and I are alone on the floor.  I’d say, “Sure is quiet.” But every day is quiet here – at least between 9-5 when all of us beaver away on our writing projects.

Tracy is a poet, the programs manager for the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild (SWG), and a good friend.  I’m glad she is here for a few more days with us.

Last night was wonderful.  We gathered in the lounge with drinks and snacks and had a chance to taste each other’s work.  What a gift.  We also got to listen in (and say hello) to the Mennonite Literary Society Satellite Launch of the newest issue of Rhubarb Magazine.  Bernice Friesen (one of our cohort) is the new Executive Editor over at Rhubarb.  She read a poem by Wes Funk, a Saskatoon writer who, I’m sad to say, passed away recently.  We all gathered in the kitchen as she read the piece out across the interwebs.  There were wet eyes. It was lovely and heartbreaking.

Oh what a gift this whole experience is to me.

I am so glad I came here.

This morning, I sent off my first submission to Gail Anderson-Dargatz.

I was incredibly nervous.  Aside from a Canada Council jury and an Ontario Arts Council jury, Gail is the first person to see any of Sanctuary on the page.

I’ve read bits of the novel to various audiences over the years (yes…years…it takes me a long time to write a novel), but no one has really SEEN it.  It is incredibly hard for me to let go of things.

It wasn’t always this way.  When I worked as a playwright, I loved getting into a room with actors, a director and a dramaturg and workshopping a new piece.  Even more, I loved the opportunity to serve as a workshop actor or dramaturg for other people’s scripts.  The Saskatchewan Playwrights’ Centre (SPC) was my home as a playwright and also one of my favourite gigs as an actor.  I also cherished my time serving on the Dramaturgical Committee (DC).  Working on new work is soooooo rewarding and fun and challenging.  I love it.  I miss it.

I grew accustomed to letting others see an early draft of my plays.  Not a first draft.  Not even the second.  But somewhere in the early stages, I would submit a play to the DC and meet with the SPC Dramaturg to talk about my work.  Then, when I was ready, I would submit the play for a workshop (1/2 day or full day) and maybe even apply to have the play in the Spring Festival of New Plays where it would receive a couple of days of workshopping with actors a director and the Festival Dramaturg and then be presented to the public as a staged reading.  All of my plays went through this process.

So what the heck is going on with me that I can not seem to let go of even a BIT of a novel until it is… super far along?

Dunno, man.

I know that novels feel…. BIG… to me.  HUGE.  There are so many…characters and scenes and… stuff to remember and keep straight.  A full length play is also huge, it really is, but I can somehow HOLD a play in my mind.  In my heart.  Whole.  It is harder for me to hold a novel, and so I tend to work them in… parts.  And then fit the parts together.  And every time I add a bit, I have to go back and re-work the bits that came before and so… how on earth can I show it to anyone until … I actually figure out what the heck I am doing and make sure that it all hangs together and… well, you see my problem.

I worked in this fashion with my plays as well, working on this scene or that one, or as the Raggedy Man likes to say, “I’m just gonna take a look at that bit in the middle.”  But… for some reason, It is harder for me to let others into my writing process as a novelist than it was to let the actors, directors and dramaturgs in to my plays.  I wonder if it has to do with the fact that, as an actor, I had already been in that room.  I knew that everyone there, tough as they might be, were always fighting for the BEST THING FOR THE PLAY.   Interesting.

So… I began writing scenes for the stage, and as I write this novel now, I write it as scenes and that’s sort of working for me but… well… maybe a big part of my fear that I’m not doing so great with this one is that it just doesn’t feel as… straightforward as working on Mostly Happy did.

A. Bean was screaming in my head by the time I got down to writing that book, and…

B. With Mostly Happy I sort of built in this idea of working on the story bit by bit into the very structure of the book.  I could explore each item in the suitcase individually– find out what it meant to Bean, why she carried it–and then weave them all together. Simple.  Aside from the puking.  (She laughs hysterically – sorry, inside joke.)

I do remember that it wasn’t that simple.  I wrote about WAY more items than there are in the book.  I had to write about ALL of them in order to find Bean’s story for myself, but only some of the items made it into that red Samsonite. In the editing process, I cut some items out all together, and some of them became… a line here, or part of a scene there.  I had to hone the tale down to the items that helped Bean bring  her story through to us the clearest.

Early drafts of Mostly Happy were… incredibly long and an incredible… MESS.  The story was BURIED under a ton of STUFF.  I did finally let my trusted first reader, who I like to call Bear, read the work.  He helped me find my way to the heart of the story beneath the jumbled heap of Bean’s treasures.

Bear’s an actor who reads A LOT.  An incredibly talented dude and an invaluable workshop actor (aHA – this may be why I trust him so much with my bizness).  I think his experience working on new plays has made him my perfect first reader– he has such and eye, ear and nose for Story and such a rooted/grounded/solid understanding of Voice and Character.  He also knows me and my work on a deep deep level.  He can tell, somehow, what I am TRYING to say.  He can ask me the questions that will lead me to the True.

That said…

I haven’t showed him this one yet.

Oh wait… I lie. He has seen a bit.  He helped me pull one of my grant apps together, so he’s seen a bit of the book.  I’m a fibber when I say Gail is the first.  But still…he hasn’t seen much.

He hasn’t seen a complete draft yet because… oh… this one is so scary for me.  As much as I trust him to have my back, I am just not ready to let him see this one yet.  It is still too….much of a… I dunno. Oh, how about “It’s incredibly long and an incredible MESS!” Sounds familiar, right?

Everything I write is scary for me, but with this one…. Well I am really stretching my self, learning new skills and taking on what are, to me, incredible challenges.  There are A LOT of characters in this book.  It started out as a seemingly simple tale of an unusual friendship and now… An entire town is involved, an entire VALLEY!  And though the book takes place over 7 days, I found myself digging back and back and back into the history of this place and these people and…. well heck, one book can’t contain it all.

There is also… magic.  Magic realism?  Maybe that’s what some will call it.

Whereas Mostly Happy is told by Bean from her point of view, this one is told in third person and it… shifts… the telling slips from close in on this person, to close up on that person, to waaaaaaaaaay up here where a narrator that I quite adore but can’t yet truly identify sees … everything.  I think what I’m doing with is called… Free, Indirect Style (Susan Swan has a great blog post about this style over HERE).

Whatever the hell I’m doing… It. Is. Hard.

For me, anyhow.

It’s also incredibly exciting when I get a passage that feels…right.  When I’m reading it out loud and walking in circles (cuz that’s what I gotta do to know if my rhythm is working), and I find myself slipping in and out and round about without a hitch…..glory.

Kuzma St Pete's
St Peter’s Abbey Road Lane (Photo by Lisa Kuzma)


I’m glad I didn’t give up and run away from this challenge.

I hope that … by the end of June, beginning of July, I will have gotten to the point where I have the huevos to let Bear see the thing.

We’ll see.

Thanks for stopping by.

Have a great weekend.

I feel that I SHOULD get on back to work now… but Heck it’s lunch time!

Go easy~p

PS: The lag between lunch and posting time was all spent…editing.  Jeez, I can’t even let a BLOG post go – heh heh.



2 Comments on “Learning when to let go…and whom to invite in.

  1. I hear ya, Pam, when you talk about a novel as a huge mess. For The Honorable Thing, I started with a final first draft of about 221k words, and have to cut that down to 75k. Yikes! It’s at 106k now (amazing!), and I’ll probably sweat another 20k out before I switch polishing wheels on it.

    Oh, and just to make life harder, I went and wrote 50k worth of emails sent back and forth between the characters. I don’t think any will make it into the novel, but they do make great blog fodder.

    • Right on. That “flensing” has been going well. I know it must feel like it is taking forever, but getting it down by HALF? That’s amazing, man.
      Write on~p

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Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Ailish Sinclair

Stories and photos from Scotland

Cathy Standiford

Historical fiction, poetry, essays

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