What will I write?

I have spent extended portions of my waking life in a dreamy state. When I am working on a new novel, the characters and their situations live in me. They grab at my attention and pull me away from what I am doing. They nip at my concentration, they beg for my awareness, they leave me in a frequent state of ill focus.

I was a dreamy kid too. As a seven-year-old, I whiled away the hours wondering if aliens had kidnapped my family and shape-shifted into their forms. They looked and sounded like my parents, my three brothers, my two sisters, but who really knew? Comfortably narcissistic, my operational theory was that it was all a grand plan to study me more closely. Other times I wondered if my experiences were part of the dream life of some other being, and then existentially I would wonder what was to happen to me when that creature awoke.

These childhood reveries turn out to be pretty close to what being a writer is like. Deep in a third novel, everything I do resonates with tension: a frisson of knowing that something else and someone else and someplace else is calling for me to take heed.

My life and writing begin to merge. All that I experience is fodder for the novel. Conversely, the novel influences in return. If a character experiences a crushing blow, a current of despondency runs through my day. If another character is thrilled by the events of that morning’s writing, I am dancing oddly through the grocery aisles that afternoon.

As a novelist, someone who works exclusively in long form, I think a great deal about what story I will write. With whom, with what, will I live a year or two of my life?

I sometimes describe myself as ideaphoric. By this, I mean that I generate lots of ideas, about lots of things, all the time. I’m annoying in a department meeting because I always have one more thought about the matter at hand, and everyone – even me – is ready to leave.

I am the same with stories: with plots and characters and all the ways a novel might be structured. Ideas spin and spin in my head, they flow like water, they come faster and faster. I can’t keep track of them all. I forget good ideas and get waylaid by weak ones.

A year or so ago, there was no time to be writing a novel. During that period, I kept turning a particular idea in my mind. When I was on tour for ‘Round Midnight last May, I told several audiences that I had the entire new book in my head, that all I needed was a little time with nothing else to do, and I could get the thing down on the page.

Folly.

Because the tour ended, life and work ensued, and I began to doubt that novel in my head. I began to wonder if it was a good idea. And then I thought, well, what about a new idea? And just like that, a new novel began to form in my head, and after some time spent, when I had that one a good way through its imagining, I decided it wasn’t that interesting after all. So I thought of a third, and I spent hours and hours – many in the middle of the night, others while driving, always daydreaming – plotting out this third: laughing at the main character, hugging myself with pleasure at her idiosyncrasies, her particular-ness, and the marvelous way that the novel’s end would spring from its beginning.

And then it happened again.

I wondered if the novel really was worth a year of my life, if it would matter that it existed in the world, if it would mean anything to a reader who invested in it.

When I wrote We Are Called to Rise, I didn’t expect it to be published. I knew the odds were very long, and I didn’t intend to wring myself out trying. I wrote the book for me, and when I was deciding what story to tell, I considered the possibility that it would be only my own children who would read it one day, perhaps after I was gone, when they were cleaning out some closet.

And that thought influenced what I wrote. It pointed me in two directions: 1) to write about something that represented a true aspect of myself, and 2) not to leave something behind that might hurt them. Those thoughts didn’t lead to the particular story I decided to write, but they profoundly affected the tone in which I wrote it.

I am not one consistent self. There are better and worse versions of Laura. If I am going to take on a project as long as a novel, with the potential to last as long in the world as a novel might, should I work from my worst self, or my best? Should I work from the Laura who looks at the world and feels despair, or the one who looks at the world and sees hope?

These are personal questions, without a right answer. Great literature has sprung from both impulses. But personally, I’ve decided to work from my best self.

I choose not to write from angst, from my fears and insecurities, my selfish impulses, my flashes of anger. I have these traits; they are part of me. But I do not wish to magnify their energy in the world. And while I am often not thus, I am capable of a generous spirit, of compassion, of hope. And this is the energy I choose to magnify with my creative work.

I feel no obligation to be more hopeful than I am, not kinder, or more wise. I am not obliged to pretend anything I don’t feel. I am not speaking here about happy endings or noble characters. I am speaking about the heart with which I choose to view my imagined world.

So I have decided to write with the Laura who will offer a stranger a hand, and not the one who gets frustrated in a slow checkout line. I choose not to write with the Laura who fears a future of gun sprees and hurricanes, but with the Laura who hears a child laugh and feels joy.

My mother used to say that “a novel is just as good a place to learn the truth as anywhere else.” I understand what she meant by this. The truth can be hidden by facts, and revealed by feelings; it can be distorted by statistics, and unveiled by intuition. Sometimes we can only hear the truth in the form of a story, in the shape of a person’s life, by walking a few hundred pages through their days. When I write, I work as hard as I can, with all the gifts that many loving men and women have given to me, to try and create this opportunity for a reader: a chance to walk through someone else’s days, to rest in someone else’s heart, to think another human being’s thoughts.

What story will I write? The one that may heal.

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