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End of a chapter, change in setting

flourescent neon December sunset over San Francisco

When I first started writing my novel eons ago, I wandered my novel’s terrain, unaware of its edges, allowing my character to explore his life and purpose. There are writers who don’t put down a single word until they outline, but that’s not me.  I have to let my character wander, before I develop both the bigger picture and details to develop plot.

However, I’m also not someone who can complete a draft without an outline, either. At some point, after I began to see the landscape, I wrote an outline for my novel, with an ending in mind, and milestones in between.

I completed my first draft based on this outline and structure.

But even as I mostly followed the outline, I allowed myself (and my character) to detract from the pre-planned journey. There were (and are) times when my character led (leads) the way, and that’s when I feel the exhilaration that I seek as a writer. After all, part of a reader’s excitement and sense of surprise and delight with the text results from when the writer allows herself to be surprised and take delight in unexpected detours.

The things that changed the most, at least for me, were the endings of chapters. I don’t mind when this happens–I welcome it; I know the story has a life of its own when this happens. Even when the chapter concludes at an anticipated point in time, the mood might be different than previously imagined. Sometimes the character decides to do something different, thus affecting the ending point of a chapter. And because my novel isn’t yet finished and needs a few more revisions, there are chapters that don’t seem to end at all.

The endings of chapters are sometimes obvious, and sometimes intuitive. Sometimes the mood shift tells me that the chapter has ended. Sometimes, the character has achieved all he has set out to do, thus indicating a shift in story. Sometimes, the character defies the outline and ends up in an entirely different setting, and demands a new chapter.

I’ve said before that as much as I pour my life into my novel…my novel informs my life, too.

Sometimes, I am not sure when a chapter in my life has come to an end. It is only when I look back years later and recognize, “Ah, that was a point in my life when things shifted.” Meeting my husband falls under that category; I had no idea at that point in time that a new chapter had begun; only that I had met a tall, dark haired, olive skinned young man to whom I was drawn with unprecedented tractor-beam intensity. Would he be a blip on the radar or a lifelong commitment? There’s no way I could have known; I feel like stalkers are the only ones who insist that a person they barely know and just met is The One.

But sometimes a new chapter is immediately obvious in the way it presents changes in circumstances and setting and psychic change and shifts in responsibilities. Moving into my freshman dorm. Graduation from college. Starting my first job. Quitting my first job. Buying a house. Getting married. Being published for the first time. Starting an MFA. A death in the family. A health and writing setback in the form of a stroke.

In that vein, a new chapter’s about to begin for me. (No–I’mNotPregnant).

I had had no idea just a few months ago, that one minor change in my life would lead to a cascade of significant decisions. I’ve referred to these changes before, but now I can announce some of the changes.

The upcoming Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Kartika Review will be my last as Fiction Editor. (We’re about to put the issue to bed). I’ve really loved working with Kartika, but since finishing a 1st draft of my novel earlier this year, I’ve had nearly zero time to revise my novel between my two paying jobs, being Fiction Editor, and my personal commitments. Something had to change. I didn’t want to have to make a change, but after months and months of frustration, the “had to” overcame the “want to.” So I resigned to resign…wrote a resignation with resignation.

Since resigning, I’ve felt a bit of lightness, not the least of which was due to the fact that I had shed a responsibility in life and made more time for my novel. But I was also surprised at other reasons for this change in mood. I realized that it was an amazing experience, but that I’d been uncomfortable in the role of being the “arbiter” of fiction. Secretly, I wondered if I was creating horrible karma for myself. Ridding myself of this previously unrecognized dread was a surprising and good thing for my writing.

And so I was left with my teaching and my HR job and my novel. I spent all my spare time grading papers, but I love my students and am dedicated to them, so I didn’t want to/couldn’t shirk on my teaching responsibilities. I believe, as Sherman Alexie puts it in his essay, “Superman and Me,” that I am saving lives by teaching. And I have a deep commitment to my HR job, too, as dry as it seems to the outside world.

So I plodded on, trying to juggle responsibilities. My novel was suffering. I knew this. I had fantasies about writing residencies. Weeks and months went by as I wrote, thin-lipped and lock-jawed.

And then–out of the blue: a Deus Ex Machina. An unbelievable, sudden solution to a problem. A surprise offer involving a change in setting. Quick logistic calculations. A rushed decision. I’m changing my life’s setting for a few months.

I’m taking a leave from teaching Spring semester; I worked with my mentor and fellow staff so that an amazing teacher is taking my place for Spring term. I have arranged a community-oriented project (a culturally-focused cookbook with essays/paragraphs accompanying each recipe) in class that is both fun and a token by which to remember each other. I am doing this with a renewed, guilt-laced vigor. I feel awful, but exhilarated all at once.

My students in my Learning Community English class (some of whom I’ve worked with for 3 semesters straight) have been so sweet and loving and generous with their send-off. If I were them, I’d be unhappy that my teacher was ditching me after semester-end…but no, they’re wishing me well, and even the most stoic and ‘gangsta boys who sit in class with their black hoodies up over their heads have given me hugs and whispered good wishes.

And a change in physical setting further marks this life chapter shift. I’ll be in one of my favorite places in the entire world.

I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m anxious. Despite how adventurous I may seem, I have a hard time dealing with change, even if the change is going to benefit me in uncountable ways. I am hoping for a smooth transition. As little stress as possible. Lots of happiness. Lots of productivity and creativity. A finished draft.

And I can’t help but think that perhaps the changes won’t end here–that perhaps more positive changes are to come, and if I keep being positive and keep working hard, my novel will benefit. Perhaps there will be more amazing and exhilarating and joyful deus ex machinas in my writing future.

I had no idea that one little change to drop a volunteer job would lead to such phenomenal changes in my life. I resigned as Fiction Editor to make more time to write and revise my novel and then…a stream of other developments and changes and decisions have made it such that I now have the time to truly focus on writing my novel.

…And start a new chapter.

Moral of story: make good changes in your life, even if seemingly small. They may lead to your dream scenarios.


Filed under Fiction Editor, Life, Novel, The Personal, Writing