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On Writing: The Story of the Story

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There are probably three stories to every novel: the one behind it, in it, and of it.

As I wrote earlier, the discussion about a seductive woman I overheard as a child in El Paso gave me the seed of an idea for The Inheritance. However, that seed sprouted in a different setting–Alabama as opposed to Texas–and produced a complex plot populated by fictional characters.

By 1996 I had a completed manuscript but was on the threshold of a big move, so I put it aside. A total of eight moves ensued before I reconnected with the manuscript in 2009. At that point, the story of the novel itself resumed, and it would soon be enlivened by a dramatic moment. 

The Home on on Gaspar Avenue

By 2009 I was on my own again and living in a rather historic old home on Don Gaspar Avenue in Santa Fe. The place had been converted into condominiums, and I bought the premier unit with a great view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the top floor. I completely remodeled it, creating a beautiful setting for one of the most difficult experiences of my life.

Suffice it to say that every problem imaginable developed in a building that saw close to forty different residents during the three years I lived there. As secretary-treasurer and the only resident owner, I had primary responsibility for managing the place, including dealing with a flooding rain that did thousands and thousands of dollars worth of damage to the unit next door. Six months after buying my unit, I put it up for sale.

As the months dragged on in a deteriorating market, I eventually surrendered to the reality that there would be no immediate escape and that I had no choice but to learn the very difficult lessons imbedded in my purchase. I was not alone in this matter, of course. The times seemed to be shaping up as an era of regret for everyone over all the things done and not done that had redounded to financial disadvantage.

I had no intention of repeating the experience, though. As I toured other real estate in Santa Fe, I told my Realtor, “If I ever mention the word condominium again, I want you to throw me on the ground and choke me until I pass out.” Nevertheless there were things about the troubled old home that I loved, and one of the experiences I will never forget involved The Inheritance.

I went out to the country the spring of 2009 to help sister Kate clean out her big barn, and there we discovered a box containing the manuscript of the bookKate keeps everything, and I had asked her for her comments back in 1996. I offered to take it off her hands, and I took it home to read.

So on the afternoon of May 16, as recorded in my journal, I went up to the little upstairs room that served as my office and guest bedroom. I lay down on the small bed thinking I might take a nap after I finished reading the book. I was immediately captivated and the hours flew by.

However, I was also becoming disoriented. It was as though I were reading a book written by someone else. How odd also that years after writing it, I would make virtually the same journey back into the South that my main character did and confront a similar familial evil nearby. As I read, it was like being in multiple places in time all at once.

I was just a couple of pages from the end when a visitor interrupted. A little bird came up the winding stairwell, flew to a window, and dropped between the pane and shade. I got up, retrieved a towel from the bathroom, and gently captured it. The small head revealed the descending profile of the wren. When I stepped out on the roof and released it, I realized that it was the first I had seen around the house. 

Minutes later I finished the last two pages of the book, and sat up feeling extremely odd. Part of it was due to the perception that the plot seemed to have been driven by what now looked like a degree of foreknowledge. The timing of my rediscovery also seemed significant.

Due to the fact that I had written the first draft during a time of empire-building in healthcare, there was a problem with the plot. Now with the turmoil erupting around healthcare reform, it worked. Then something else happened to intensify my sense of the unusual afoot.

I put the manuscript away and headed downstairs to close the small window where the wren had probably flown in. The window had no screen, and I sometimes left it open a crack to listen to the birds working the feeder in the nearby locust tree. However, the window was not open. In fact, I realized that it had probably been closed since the previous day.

I thought through my activities, including the dinner party the evening before, and there had been no sign of a bird. And it could have flown many places in the house besides upstairs into the little bedroom where I was reading. Then there was the matter of timing–its appearance just minutes before I finished reading the book.

My mind began to race. I had had this kind of experience before when an extraordinary synchronicity, the appearance of a vivid symbol, or a matter of timing had manifested in a way I could easily interpret as guidance. In the world of symbolism, a bird is a messenger. I would suggest that any startling appearance of a bird–and many have very specific associations–is a “Pay attention” moment.

The Room Visited by the Wren

To kind of collect my wits and get grounded, I went about the business of cleaning house to prepare for a showing the next day. When I had told a friend earlier about rediscovering the manuscript, she had asked if I would publish it now. My response was “No, I don’t think so.” As I worked however, I kept thinking about the wren’s appearance. By the end of the day I had decided to set the story free in the same way I had released the little bird.

That commitment held but through many ensuing difficulties, and it would actually be three more years before I had the published book in hand. So with regard to the story behind, in, and of The Inheritance, the “of” part goes on and on. However, I will leave it here for now.

2 Responses to “On Writing: The Story of the Story”

    • celeryellen

      Ah, well, there may be a follow-up. Actually, maybe the story is never over.

      Great seeing you at the reunion. More soon.