"Working through to the End," by Mariana Damon
When I started my third novel many years ago, I intended to write a genre novel à là Dan Brown but with a literary twist. I was in Cambridge, England at the time with my English professor husband who was there on an NEH grant. I had a vague outline of the plot: a high school English teacher from Iowa visits Cambridge, and discovers a poem and letter she believes were written by Wilfred Owen.
Who the heck is Wilfred Owen? Owen, now acknowledged as one of the greatest war poets of the WWI era, has been largely overlooked in favor of Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brookes. Owen enlisted and fought bravely but had a nervous breakdown while fighting on the Hindenburg Line. Blasted by mortar fire, he ended face down in a corpse’s intestines. Gibbering and disoriented, he was sent to an insane asylum in Edinburgh. He reenlisted as soon as he could string two sentences together coherently, only to die two weeks before armistice at the age of twenty-five.
I started notes for my novel in Cambridge and finished a draft two years later. It was entitled Death of a Poet. When I showed it to one of my closest writing friends, she gave me a sympathetic smile and a shake of the head. “This isn’t a mystery about a stolen manuscript,” she said. “This is a deeply affecting novel about grief and loss. You just haven’t written it yet.”
I nodded and stuffed the manuscript away to think about her feedback. I was appreciative of her advice, but as my husband was terminally ill and in the process of dying, I was floored. I had written Death of a Poet when my husband was feeling unwell but was still a vital researcher, teacher, husband, and father. The fact that he was terminally ill and would die two years later, was not even something we’d imagined that summer in Cambridge. Since I’m not and never have been clairvoyant, and since I was clearly out to write a mystery that summer, I pushed her comments to the back of my consciousness and went about my life trying to keep my family and my job together as my husband slowly died in a hospital bed three hours away in Omaha.
Many months later after I had sold our home in Nebraska, buried my husband, and moved back to friends and family in the Northwest, I pulled out Death of a Poet and was struck by how right my friend had been. In the novel my protagonist, Jeri Jacobs, faced with the death of her oldest child, flees her home and job in Iowa to go to England. At the time I began the novel, Jeri’s predicament was meant only as a backdrop, another plot complication in the search for a missing Wilfred Owen poem. However, reading the manuscript after the tsunami that was my life at the time had subsided, I realized that I’d written the novel inside out. It was Jeri’s search for meaning and faith in a hostile universe, not Owen’s missing poem, that was at the heart of the novel. I was stunned. All those years ago and another world away, I’d been staring grief and loss in the face and never known it. My conscious mind had been too afraid to verbalize what my subconscious mind knew. With this knowledge, I set about rewriting. In order to do that, I had to stare my grief in the face and name it.
The second draft, finally titled An Uncertain Compass, is Jeri’s story. Owen’s poetry, World War I, and the blind stupidity of all war are still in the novel, but it’s Jeri’s struggle that drives the plot. Last summer, I submitted the second draft to my writing group for more feedback. I felt sure that after all the work and pain I’d gone through, they’d be satisfied with it. Imagine my surprise when a unanimous decision was made that I needed to write another draft. I didn’t want to hear it, but I knew my readers were right. I’d written about Jeri’s journey toward healing, but I’d neglected the start. All good novels have five parts: the world as it is, the inciting incident, the world in turmoil, the journey, then resolution. I had jumped ahead to Jeri’s journey but without the necessary exposition, the novel lacked grit. I had to show more of Jeri’s pain and grief in order to have the resolution be truly meaningful, but I’d been afraid.
My process is not an anomaly. Often, writers don’t get to the core of their story until many drafts later. A writer writes to get as close to the truth as possible, but sometimes that truth is too scary or too shadowy to be revealed. When this happens, a writer is like a blind person in a dark room feeling for signposts-- signposts that only occur after several drafts. The truth is, facing a blank piece of paper or an empty screen with only the ideas and dreams in your head is the ultimate test of bravery, the true vision quest. Am I good enough? Do I have something to say? You’ll only find out if you have the courage to work through the drafts to the end.
Mariana Damon is a writer, editor, and teacher currently living in Kuwait. She is co-author of Writing in a Changing World and is working on a novel about Wilfred Owen.