I started my Friday tucked in the corner of my French café with J.K. Rowling, listening and laughing as her interview from last week played on my laptop. She told a story in passing about the first book she’d ever made, when she was six, about a rabbit. But before the conversation moved on, she said in retrospect what was important about that book was that she’d finished it. That finishing a story was the mark of someone who truly wanted to write. A renewed commitment to Dark Room flooded me. It was close, but it wasn’t finished. Not yet. Not really.
Later in the day, after teaching, I sat again with my laptop this time watching my daughter in gymnastics class. Next weekend, I am taking a class taught by Laurie Halse Anderson. Each of the twelve students is assigned to a critique group of four led by an assistant teacher. I’d received my critique letters from the rest of my group. The critique letter from the assistant teacher arrived during gymnastics class.
What is beautiful about this letter is that it started to make sense of these other scraps of feedback I’d gotten along the way, feedback that had nagged at me because I’d had the same worries myself, really. You know the worries I mean. You know something is bothering you, you hope you’ve addressed it, but you’re not sure. Then you get feedback and, even if it doesn’t offer suggestions you feel would help, it points directly at your nagging concerns. So I’d come to the point where I knew certain things had to be addressed. What set this letter apart was that it offered alternative approaches to the issues in my story. It didn’t just say, “This isn’t working here,” but went beyond to say, “Try this, this, and this.” Suddenly scraps of feedback I’d pushed to the back of my mind shifted and began to fit together like a puzzle; scenes of my story began to shift opening doors in places I didn’t know existed. I only have to open them. This is exactly why Jacqueline Woodson said, “Take classes in which the teachers and students are authors you admire.” Just like when I went to the Highlights Founder’s workshop, Starting Your Novel, with Patti Lee Gauch and began to learn the mechanics of story building, I have a feeling I am going to learn exactly what I have been trying to figure out about pacing and threads.
There are voices though. Voices that have said out loud through my own lips, “This novel is ready to go out. I’ll work on it mid-October through December 31st, and then the agent queries are going out. It’s time.” These are the voices who know the need for recognition, the need for others to affirm what you’ve been doing is valuable, the need to see something on the shelf, a reward for these ten years of work that are supposed to lead to expertise, the need to start on the next story idea. But these are dangerous voices and artificial deadlines that have nothing to do with art. “How do you ever know if you’re done?” my husband asks. I think is has less to do with the product than with your growth as an artist. If a piece is teaching you ways to grow as an artist, presenting doors to you, you have to go through them. I have to go through them. Do I wish I could predict a query mailing January 1st? You bet I do. Do I wish Laurie Halse Anderson would say, “Why are you even here? Let me call my agent.” Of course. But the fact of the matter is I’m landing exactly where I need to next weekend in Vermont. In the hands of those I most admire, in the hands of teachers who will propel me onward.
I wish when I got back I had eight-hour days to gallop through the next phase of revision. But I don’t. I have two hours every morning, and then I have to go to teach. Teaching has stopped me from writing before, but I can’t let that happen now, not this close, not with J.K. Rowling’s voice in my head saying, “What’s important is that I finished. You see, I think that is the mark of someone who truly wants to write.” I have to worry about art now. I have to grow, even if more slowly than I want. I have to finish.