Originally Posted: May 28, 2010
People have been asking me frequently about the process of writing Outside the Ordinary World… So here it is: I began the book in my late twenties, as a kind of self-torture, or maybe you could call it therapy. I wanted to write about growing up in the 70’s, in the Seventh-Day Adventist church and in a family that was coming unglued. But whenever I sat down to write, I found myself sliding into fiction: I needed to play with chronology and history, to invent characters and contexts that would better capture my themes. Gradually, the story morphed, growing wings and scales. But it still contained the painful nugget of truth at the heart of every family’s dysfunction—how the dilemmas our parents fail to solve get handed to us.
After completing my first draft of that childhood story, which ended up being about a thousand pages long (no kidding) I sent it to agents with the over-eagerness of a toddler showing her first crayon drawing. Of course, I was blasted with rejections. It didn’t have a cohesive arc. They couldn’t figure out what genre it was… Devastated, I put the book away for about seven years, during which I got married, started Writers in Progress, began teaching and had two daughters.
But the story was like an annoying stray dog that wouldn’t go away. James Baldwin once described it as “something that irritates you and won’t let you go. You must do this book or die.”
So a few years ago, I dusted the creature off and started taking weekends away, much to the consternation of my husband and young daughters. Every month or so, I’d sneak off to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield, MA, about an hour away in the Berkshires. No phone service, no email, no student manuscripts. I didn’t know yet how to fix the book, I just knew it needed a contemporary frame. Strangely, it was the difficulty and necessity of these weekends—of leaving my family in order to write—that gave me the idea for Sylvia’s affair. The guilt and desperation I felt each time I drove off with my 2 kids crying in the driveway and my husband looking spent and longsuffering—all this made me feel I was having an affair, with my book. I understood suddenly what that particular awful pleasure must be like…
John Irving once said that he feels the story he is writing existed before he existed and he’s just the guy who tries to find it and do the characters justice.
This really is how it felt finding the Ashfield story. Every time I went up the mountain to write, I discovered something—a 20 acre parcel of land with an old farmhouse that could be Sylvia and Nathan’s farmhouse; an old hippy woman who drove to town with her goats, who became my character Roz Benton, a cottage in the woods that looked exactly like the cottage I’d envisioned for Sylvia’s lover… I started to feel that the story was living through me, that I was simply there to find it and get it down.
One early morning at home, I was trying to capture a moment where Emmy, the 4-year old in the story, gets her head split open by a goat’s hoof. I was wondering how much blood there would be, whether she would need stitches or a trip to the hospital, when suddenly I heard a crash behind me: my own 4-year old daughter, coming down the stairs to find me, had fallen and split her head open on the radiator. So I found out exactlyhow much blood there would be, and what it was like watching someone sew up your daughter’s head. That event spooked me so much, I didn’t write for two weeks!
I’m not a big believer in psychic phenomenon, but I do think there’s a kind of magic that happens when you are writing a story you are completely invested in. The membrane between worlds becomes very thin indeed…
In all my writing, I’m fascinated by the intersection of realities, the knowledge that two or more divergent worlds might exist side by side and we can, and must, travel between them. It’s true for everyone in some way. And it’s what we’re after, isn’t it, when we read and write fiction?
Posted by: Dori