Circle/Line by Carolyn Ferrell '84

Circle/Line: What one novelist does about the dreaded question. Earlier this summer, my mother asked about the novel I’ve been writing. Her question was a careful one; she didn’t press for very specific details (such as when she’d be able to find it in the local Barnes & Noble) but was curious to know what was happening.

Since I’d begun writing it, I’d given birth to two children, started my teaching career in earnest and contributed stories to various anthologies-all reasons, I believed, why the book was not finished when I first predicted it would be. My mother was equally anxious to see my book done, as it seemed to represent a kind of homecoming for both her and for me. The plot was largely autobiographical, taking place in the 1970s on Long Island, a time when she, a German immigrant, was negotiating a tough marriage to my African-American father, who’d only recently escaped an impoverished home in North Carolina. The cast of characters in my novel was formidable, drawn largely from the neighborhood in which my family lived, occasionally thrived, and often suffered. My book would not simply be a story, however. It would be a correction, a re-imagining of our past: one part revenge, one part healing, one part literary art. And because of this, it would have to be epic in proportion—how else to share the stories from North Ronald Drive that Real Life seemed to have left out?

In the beginning, I was certain the story would start with the Vietnam War (Jerry B. returned from his tour there and was shunned by his family for having come home gay); it would incorporate the local happenings of the Black Power Movement (hadn’t the women of our black neighborhood—led by Mrs. W.—actually gotten up a petition against our racially offensive family?) as well as question Long Island’s history of origins (why did everything have a Native American name when there seemed to be no Indians anywhere?).

Every once in a while, as the years went on, my mother would ask about the novel’s progress.

The list of inclusions went on. If a certain subject crossed my memory-the women’s liberation movement, Caribbean newcomers to our neighborhood, President Nixon on the front page of the newspaper as he resigned-it was automatically inducted into the Emerging Novel Hall of Fame.

And every once in a while, as the years went on, my mother would ask about the novel’s progress.

There are some people who love to discuss their writing plans with anyone who’ll listen. I am not one of those, and yet, I felt I couldn’t disappoint my number one reader. I gave my mother updates as best I could, including periodic re-evaluations of content and structure-specifically, my need to revise certain sections. But answering her questions always left me with a certain queasy feeling, as if I were not being entirely honest with her, or myself. Why wasn’t my novel done? Why did I need to revise as much as I did? The story seemed to grow at an alarming rate-why hadn’t I just stuck to the book I’d begun with?

“You had such a nice story about our swimming pool,” my mother once observed. “Remember how much fun that pool was? The neighborhood always loved us in the summer. Why did you take the pool out of the book?”

It is, of course, hard for a non-writer to slip into the shoes of a writer, to understand how difficult it is to cut, re-form, re-imagine. Process-just how interesting is it to someone who doesn’t experience the same type of writerly joy and pain? How many times have I had to explain myself to those who don’t understand why it may take years to craft a book, or why a book may undergo tremendous changes along the way (including beginning, middle and ending)? Sometimes a non-writer friend will ask me about my progress, and stand there glassy-eyed while I go on about revision. This friend is not interested in my ideas about honing craft. She wants to know when she’ll be able to buy the book. Friends, relatives-even other writers-often want a concrete outcome to my project.

What they don’t realize is that I want the same thing.

“You and Theresa Cockrell used to be such good friends in the third grade. I hope she’s in the book.”

When, earlier this summer, I told my mother about the way my novel now looks (gone are its epic proportions and the need to include every kitchen sink from my childhood-gone, in fact, is my childhood), she sighed and said, “Will there be anything left of the story you began with?”

How to best answer that? Yes, and, thankfully, no. Years ago I began with a firm idea of my subject matter, only to discover-after much time-that the beating heart of the novel lay elsewhere. All this time I’ve been circling my subject matter like a covered wagon, adding on here and there, sizing up certain characters, reinvigorating landscapes, re-examining structure. What I was doing was stripping away the layers of wonderful material in order to get at the necessary material. A writer friend of mine put it best when she told me, “Sometimes it’s all about choices and I don’t want to make any.” But to every writer-myself included-there does come that time when it is about finally making those choices.

The outcome of my work has been approaching me all along, in ways I can only now begin to grasp.

The New Zealand writer Janet Frame once wrote, “Putting it all down as it happens is not fiction. There must be the journey by oneself, the changing of the light focused upon the material, the willingness of the author herself to live within that light, that city of reflections governed by different laws, materials, currency.” A novel or story is not a regurgitation of facts or a laundry list of memories or even a compilation of our best memories, scaled down from the weighty corpus of our lived experiences. For Janet Frame, every writer must avoid simply transferring events to the page without first visiting “Mirror City,” that place where people and events and memories are transformed by the creative act into fiction. “Undoubtedly I have mixed myself with other characters who themselves are a product of known and unknown, real and imagined; I have created 'selves’; but I have never written of 'me.’ Why? Because if I make that hazardous journey to the Mirror City where everything I have known or seen or dreamed of is bathed in the light of another world, what use is there in returning only with a mirrorful of me? Or indeed, of others who exist very well by the ordinary light of day?”

This is the thing I’ve dreamt of for years, my novel. But I am also compelled to ask: Haven’t I been after more than just publishing a book?

The novel I am working on now is very different from the one I began years ago. It has a sharper focus, what I believe to be a more manageable cast of characters, a better plot. It has gone through many, many drafts, producing in its author alternating fits of happiness, gratitude and agony. Its shape has morphed more times than I can count. But its core has stayed with me always.

The story is about an interracial family on Long Island, but is otherwise not autobiographical. It does not rely on real life to give it its energy, its conflict, its sense of resolution. I feel as if I’ve gotten a better understanding of my project, moved it from kaleidoscopic monolith to centered novel. It has, I hope, a larger meaning; it contains resonance. It’s not the thing I once told my mother about while she babysat and I moved-with glee-from my son’s crib to my computer. It is less, and at the same time, much more.

“The process of writing,” Frame wrote, “may be set down as simply laying a main trunk railway line from Then to Now, with branch excursions into the outlying wilderness, but the real shape, the first shape, is always a circle formed, only to be broken and reformed, again and again.”

The outcome of my work has been approaching me all along, in ways I only now begin to grasp.

All in a Day’s Work - What do Sarah Lawrence Alumnae/i do for a living? Take a look. Josh Selig - ...I worked as a street performer, juggling and eating fire in Times Square. Barbara Kolsun - One of my areas of expertise is counterfeiting.