During the second (and last) full day of the retreat, the weather was hotter and drier, and unbroken by thunderstorms at Homestead House. The window, floor, and ceiling fans were a constant source of white noise, as I sat, partially horizontal, on the couch in the living room. I struggled to eat all the food I had bought—a whole bag of salad, a whole tub of blueberries, a whole bag of carrots. My pedometer stayed under 5000 steps.
What Linda and I had fleshed out the previous day was the idea of stories: whose story is it anyway?
We had talked about the fact that there were at least 4 characters with stories: Hallie, Flora, Daniel, and Roberta (also Luke and Chris, but they are secondary characters and I had never gotten into their points of view). I had started out with Hallie as the protagonist, but I had gone into Daniel’s and Roberta’s and even Flora’s heads for a time. While I love Hallie, I didn’t want to write the whole novel from the perspective of a 12-year-old with ADHD, not even to avoid the dreaded head hopping. And I was relieved to realize that I didn’t have to.
On Linda’s advice, I began dividing the whole novel into these stories, cutting and pasting the scenes into separate documents where they belonged based on viewpoint character, and ended up with 93 pages for Hallie, 17 for Roberta, 10 for Daniel, and 2 for Flora. This felt unbalanced, but it also felt promising. Some of the Hallie pages were very awkwardly Hallie, put into her viewpoint merely to avoid third-person omniscient, or to avoid head hopping. Some of these pages opened up a whole new theme or way of looking at a scene or event when considered from another point of view. Some of the missing plot holes might be more easily filled in by filling out one of the other characters’ stories.
In addition to A Wrinkle in Time, I had brought a copy of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper to the retreat. On first glance, My Sister’s Keeper is not much like A Wrinkle in Time: it’s not YA, it’s not SF. It was written in 2010 rather than 1964. But it does have a 13-year-old female protagonist. And most importantly, the author writes from multiple viewpoints.
Well, perhaps in this case, not most importantly. Most importantly, I was in a creative writing class with Jodi Picoult when we were both undergraduates at Princeton University. This was a long time ago, and even back then it was clear that Jodi Picoult was very talented, and a genuinely nice person. After graduation she went on to become a very successful NYT bestselling author whose books have been made into movies. I, on the other hand, went to graduate school in Neuroscience and gave up writing fiction altogether for years.
Normally I don’t regret that choice. I don’t even usually think about it in those terms, which is probably for the best. But reading Picoult’s writer’s voice, which has matured but not fundamentally altered over all these years, did make me think, and confront some issues I may have been hiding from. I don’t have Picoult’s talent or ambition. I don’t expect, or even aspire, to write bestsellers. But I do wish I had a gift for expressing myself and connecting with readers the way she does. I do wish I had the courage she has to explore the tangle of family relationships through fiction writing. And I wonder if maybe I did, once. And if I might be able to find it again.
In particular, I looked at those two measly pages allocated to Flora, Hallie’s mother. Flora is the closest to me in age, gender, and motherhood status, so in a way, she should be the easiest character for me to write. But writing her still felt more alien than writing as Hallie or Roberta, both teenagers, or even as Daniel, the taciturn engineer whose mind was unraveling. Linda kept asking me about Flora, her motivations, her mass of contradictions. I said, holding up My Sister’s Keeper, that Flora was like Sara Fitzgerald in that novel: a mother who loves and wants only the best for her children, but someone for whom that love and desire for the best leads her to make bad decisions. Linda thought this was a type of character that many readers could identify with, and encouraged me to explore Flora further.
So I started threaded those 4 stories together intentionally. I brought in Hallie, Daniel, and Flora right at the beginning. I gave them each their own scenes, interleaved them, and then mentioned the character in the upcoming scene at the end to provide a transition. The next morning, Linda really liked this version and said I’d “gotten” it. It seemed a little complicated, but the best way forward.
“Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie” – The Set
–A series of blogs describing my experiences at Windbreak House, a women’s writing retreat in South Dakota run by Linda Hasselstrom