I’ve been off social media for nearly two weeks in order to write a novella, working title So Lucky.1 I finished a draft at the weekend. In terms of genre it lives somewhere between crime fiction, dark fantasy, and rage. The draft weighs in at 28,000 words: 100 manuscript pages exactly. I suspect I’ll lose a good chunk of that in the rewrite. This draft was mostly about figuring out where I was going. It was not easy.
Thinking with my fingers is something I’ve done a lot with short fiction; I have a vague notion, or a starting image, and am happy to follow it and see where it leads. After all, a short story is, well, short. How lost can you get in a few thousand words? So when I start a piece of short fiction I expect to meander; I look forward to it. Oddly, though, this rarely happens. My short pieces tend to come out in one clean take, needing only a bit of tidying up before publication. Novels don’t work that way. They’re too long and complicated to blunder about without knowing where I’m going. I never start a novel until I know how it ends.
This novella was unusual in several ways. First, and most obviously, it’s something I had drafted before, many years ago. I actually sold it (under the title Season of Change), then pulled it from publication because it wasn’t right; it didn’t ring true. It took me a while to figure out that the problem was the ending; it was basically a narrative prosthesis.2 Over the years I’ve revisited it many times, but I could never get the ending to change; the final image just wouldn’t budge.
Second, there’s no lyricism, no nature writing. (The closest I’ve been to that before is “It Takes Two.”) It’s all plot and dialogue, with some internal processing thrown in.
Third, it would be easy to read the protagonist as me. It’s set in a city, Atlanta, where I lived for five years; it’s contemporary; and it’s about a queer woman being diagnosed with MS. However, while it uses many autobiographical details it is not autobiography.3
I often use parts of my experience in my fiction. Slow River is set in a city where I lived for ten years, and the essential question embedded in the narrative revolves around a question I asked myself then—but it’s also set in the future, and the protagonist is a rich kid. The Blue Place is about a woman who largely grew up in the north of England; Stay uses my experience of grief; and a big chunk of Always concerns teaching women’s self-defence—but the Aud novels are about a 6-foot tall, über competent, well-connected Norwegian woman. And Hild, well, while Hild is positively stuffed with autobiographical details it’s also about an aristocratic woman who lived 1400 years ago. All these novels are written from the perspective of a queer woman. None of them, though, is about being a queer woman.
The autobiographical elements in this novella are not what made it so hard to write. What made it hard was that it’s about disability. I don’t mean it revolves around a disabled character, I mean it’s about disability. This is a first for me. Not in terms of writing characters with disabilities (see Slow River and Always) but writing fiction about how being disabled makes you Other.
I’ve spent my entire writing life creating protagonists who are queer women. But I’ve never made any of the stories—short fiction or novels—about being a woman or about being queer.4 I’m generally not a fan, as Kelley would say, of eating from the theme tray. I didn’t want to do that with this one, either. But it kept dragging me in that direction.
I have some theories about why that should be.
I’ve known I was a dyke since, well, I knew I was a girl and that my name was Nicola. It seemed perfectly natural to me, as natural as breathing or climbing a tree or eating when hungry. It took me a bit longer to understand that there were labels for those who were attracted to one, or the other, or both, or neither. With that understanding came the realisation that some labels were considered Good and others Bad. But for some reason my first understanding did not allow of the second: I simply didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. I knew I was amazing. And if I fancied girls then fancying girls was amazing.
I didn’t really start to write until I was in my early 20s. I’ve been female and queer my whole life. It still took a while to learn how to write from that identity but not about that identity. My first few attempts were heavy on irony and satire. After a handful of stories I didn’t like very much I realised writing about being a dyke did not interest me; for me it was an old story, settled.
This is not true for being a crip. I was diagnosed with MS in 1993 (the same month my first novel came out). Illness came first, physical impairment later (I was still doing aikido in 1998). I did not start to use a cane until 1999. For many years even though I walked with a limp and used a cane I apparently did not match others’ perceptions of Disabled. Strangers would say, Was it a climbing accident? (Seriously, that was the number one assumption: rock climbing, mountain climbing, free climbing. Any kind of climbing. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea.) And when I said, I have MS, they would looked puzzled and say, But you’re so strong!
Strong and Cripple do not fit together in their heads. It did not fit together in my head. My community was not other crips; it was writers, women, queers. They were as ableist as anyone else—as ableist as me. It took me a long time to unlearn some attitudes (and I’m not convinced I have unlearned them entirely; we are products of our culture, and our culture is aggressively ableist).
It takes years to learn to write properly from one’s identity. Just because I had written a lot before, just because I had chosen/accepted my identity as a crip did not mean I was ready to write from it. It’s taking me a while to wrap my head around the whole thing.
So when I first wrote the novella the narrator (whose name keeps changing, so I won’t use it here) I thought that the ending, in which Our Woman Has an Epiphany, seemed okay. Gradually, though, I realised that was ableist crap: the problem isn’t personal attitude, it’s cultural attitude. It’s them, not us. One snag: I could not get that ending image to change. No matter what I did, it just sat there with its arms folded and refused to move.
Then a couple of weeks ago, after the most recent #CripLit chat, I realised: I don’t have to change the ending, I just have to change the meaning of the ending. At that point I was ready to rock and roll. I kept getting a bit didactic, a bit unsubtle, but I wrote it anyway. Sometimes the only way past a phase is through it. I needed to say this stuff so I said it.
That what’s what I’ve been doing while I’ve been away. Fixing the draft won’t take half as much time and attention. So: I’m back.
1 Working titles almost always change.
2 For more on this, see Disability: Art, Scholarship, and Activism.
3 I get so tired of having to say that. But I’ve found that the further an author is perceived to be from the Norm—straight, white, male, able-bodied, middle-class, etc.—the more likely she to be deemed to be writing from her experience. If a straight white male college professor writes about a straight white male professor having an affair with a young student then, hey, it’s art! But if a queer woman writes about a queer woman then, hey, she must be writing her life story! After all, she couldn’t possibly be making this up. Because, hey, women aren’t very inventive.
4 I’m writing a long nonfiction piece about why this is so. But I’m not ready to share that. Yet.
7 thoughts on “New novella—and writing from identity”
Nicola, I enjoy your missives more and more. I have just begun to write here in my seventh decade. I have always been seen, as I still am as a strong functional ableist even after devastating illness began in 1999. We have a great deal in common but I usually didn’t see the point in your conversations. Now with the experience of trying to write, that experience informs my understanding of things you say about writing and you are becoming more interesting to me. Keep filling my head while we are riding this planet together.
Outstanding post, Nicola! I’d love to see the first draft (he said humbly).
Can’t wait to read it.
Geeze!! I fell in love with HILD not many pages in to the story. She captured my sole. The immensity of the physical impact on my subconscious still resonates when I think of your writing. I read the writings of Atlanta and knew those feelings o the attitudes of laws and law enforcement. You became real as a person and a force I could understand. Your talent, altho I suspect it is the total you, lures me as song from the swamp shadows, filled with soulfulness. I do appreciate your openness of true feelings. And thank you for sharing from the depths.
Beautifully put. I’ve noticed a lot of female characters I’ve read, watched, or loved go on a journey during their respective stories to find strength. Most of yours start out strong. They find vulnerability instead. Aud finds it when she falls in love with Julia. Lore and Marghe find it when they’re kidnapped. Hild is the big exception, who finds strength in her cleverness, in learning and observing enough to pass for a prophet. There’s a similarity between all of them in how attuned they are to the world around them and how much they observe in those they interact with. Perhaps these are strengths you yourself possess. If not, you do an impressive job of having your characters convey these strengths. A lot of authors write about what they know, but they often choose a more symbolic or metaphoric way of going about it. I myself prefer to do this. At the same time, there’s a core of real emotion which infuses my characters and the conflicts they find themselves. Sometimes, it’s too raw to write directly about what we know. Sometimes, we roll our eyes, thinking “I really don’t want to write the same story everyone else is writing about!” Sometimes, the story just has to come out, even if it’s not one you want to write. It’s impressive that you managed to find a way to turn around your ending, alter its meaning in a way which satisfied you. I, too, look forward to reading your story. You are one of the few authors whom, if I see a book you’ve written in a bookstore (yes, I still love to go to those, despite being an ebook writer and reader), I will pick up and purchase, without hesitation. :)
Prose vs. poetry!
@Bruce: I generally don’t let anyone see first drafts.
@rhodrymavelyne: Hild was different because she was a child. But what all my characters share is absolute belief in themselves. And that’s the thing they share with me.
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