True story: Many years ago, I'd written a memoir about my Irish ancestry, and I had an agent who wanted to read it. I sent it, and since this was in the era before email submissions, picture a trip to the post office and my attending nervousness. Then I waited. One day I got a phone call. The agent said (and I remember the words exactly): "I don't love it at all."
We talked a little longer. She said there was no "real story." I was polite, thanked her for her time, and hung up the phone. I had a decision to make. I could ignore what she had said about the book having no "real story," and send it to other agents. Or I could begin again.
I decided to begin again. I decided to write a novel.
I went to the bookshelf and turned to a book called The Novel, a two-volume collection edited by Franco Moretti. I opened one of the volumes at random and came upon this sentence: "All narrative is driven by desire."
The feminist in me stomped her feet.
The pragmatic writer in me said, "Okay. Desire it will be."
And I wrote what would become my novel, Shamrock and Lotus.
So this month's lesson in our Birthing the Writer Class is this: Find the desire.
Think of a novel you love. The main character wants something. It is this wanting that drives her to make decisions. These decisions have consequences. How she deals with these consequences teaches her lessons. This is why we read.
It is interesting to think about this in the context of mothering: The desire to become a mother is, I would argue, the human desire with the largest consequences. We start with "nothing," (a term, I recently learned in Naomi Wolf's book Vagina, that also referred to a woman's vagina in the Shakespearean era) and from this nothing, we make a child from our desire. As a consequence, we change our identities and we give our lives over to the life of this consequence.
This is why, when our desire to become a mother meets with conflict (the partner doesn't want a child, or doesn't participate fully in the life of the child, or the child's desires conflict with ours, or we change our mind and decide we don't want to live with the consequence, after all), mothering's desire can be met with such exquisite pain.
Desire, then, is the arc of a narrative. It is what causes the narrative to reach for something. It moves the narrative up. It leads to motion—and emotion. It lands the character in a new place. This is called, in creative writing classes, "timing."
Desire is also the ark of a narrative. It is that elusive ending that causes readers to turn pages. It is the endpoint, the home, the sacred promise that writers keep with readers that tells them this story will be a covenant, and give them a place to land. This is called, in creative writing classes, "plot."
So you want to write fiction? Do this. Go to a magazine and choose three images that you are drawn to. (Desire.) You don't have to know why. Just rip them out and place them in front of you, left to right.
Now look at the first image on the left. This is your character. Where is she? What is happening in her life? How does the image give you clues about this? Write about this in the third person. Describe her.
Now turn to the picture in the center. This is what she wants. (Desire.) Is it a new thing, a new place? Or something she wants to return to? Describe her wanting. Show her desire.
And now, the third picture is simultaneously her decision about this desire and her movement toward it. Show this. Show her moving, literally and figuratively, toward it. What happens? Does she get it? How does she feel? What must she overcome in order to fulfill her desire?
You can stop here. You've written a short story. And you can submit what you've written to the Birthing the Mother Writer Class for next month's column. (See below.)
Or you can go on to keep writing about how the consequence leads to a new desire if you wish. If you do, this will then move from a short story to a chapter in a novel. And the next chapter will open with this new desire and propel both the character and the reader forward.
This is called "writing through scenes." I learned about this method from the writer Mary Alice Monroe at a writing workshop she gave at the Sophia Center in Charleston, South Carolina, with the writer Sue Monk Kidd. I've since used this scene-making exercise dozens of times with writing clients and in workshops, adding the element of the three images to help spark the imagination. It works.
And there's something else about the arc/ark of desire. When we write about characters who want something, we begin to ask ourselves what we want. We begin to see our own power in making decisions that bring us closer to our desires or keep us where we are. We see the necessity for movement in order for fulfillment. And we become more conscious of the role we play in creating the life we want.
The feminist in me who stomped her feet at the word "desire" so long ago has since taken a seat on my couch, feet tucked under her, with a glass of wine in hand and a grin on her face. She gets it now.
All narrative—including the story of a woman's life—is about desire.
Now it's your turn to write a story about that.
Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. See submission guidelines below. Due February 1, 2015.
Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with "Due Dates!")
Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!
Unit 1: Poetry
- September—Poetry is the Map
- October—Reader Response to Poetry is the Map (Submit up to 3 poems about how poetry has been your map. Due September 29, 2014.)
- November—The Deeper Stuff of Poetry
- December—Reader Response to The Deeper Stuff of Poetry (Submit an essay of 800-1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet. Due November 30, 2014.)
Unit 2: Fiction
- January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
- February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
- March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
- April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)
Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction
- May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
- June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
- July and August—Summer Break
- September—Life is a Book
- October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)
Reader Response Submission Guidelines
Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:
-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”
-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.