I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process.
Once I get an idea, I cannot let it go until I have furiously scribbled it on paper. In fact, I think I may have reached a new level of madness recently: inspiration struck, and the only paper on hand was the back of a few old receipts lying neglected in the bottom of my bag.
That inspiration? In the form of a novel I had loved as a child. I received a pristine copy of Little Women from an old writer friend of mine, who knew it was one of my favorite books. "Perhaps rereading it will get you out of your writer's block," he had said soothingly. My scholarly friends have always heard me vehemently claim that writers are influenced by the literature they have read, and I am certainly no exception to that. Sidebar: don't believe me? J.K. Rowling stated in an interview after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that her tale of the deathly hallows was based on "The Pardoner's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Harvard has a nice translation from the Middle English here.
I couldn't remember the last time I had reread Little Women. "When am I going to have the time to read this?" I had whined. I needed to make headway on my novel, not reread old literature! "Just try it," he had coaxed. "Take a break. Read a book. Heck, read a few! What harm could it do?"
I still own my first copy of Little Women - a now-battered paperback that I had purchased out of a Scholastic book order in the 6th grade. I was eleven when I first read it. I related most to Jo: her need for adventure, her whirlwind of energy, her love of stories and writing, her resistance - and ultimate acceptance - to change. I think about Jo and her sisters from time to time, the complexity of their characters, how their faults and virtues balanced each other in the end.
I hadn't reread the novel since college. It's been at least seven years since I've touched it. Upon receiving this new copy for my library, I leafed through the pages, randomly opening the book at the halfway point. It was like the words jumped off the page:
She did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh.
Life has a way of connecting the dots when you need it the most. Only a few days after receiving this book gift, a college student I am accompanying for a voice recital texted me one afternoon: "Liv, I am changing one of my recital pieces to 'Here Alone' from the stage musical Little Women. Do you know it? Can you do it?"
"Of course," I had replied. I pulled the music from my library, dusted its pages, and opened it to the song she had requested. Like the novel, I hadn't touched this music since college. For my non-musical theatre readers, "Here Alone" is Marmee's song. When I had first heard this number years ago, it was not the lyrics initially but the score that stood out to me. Written in the key of F minor, it has a hauntingly beautiful quality, a sorrowful reflection on Marmee's struggle raising her four daughters alone while her husband is at war.
The lyrics begin: Write a letter, / be inventive, / tell you everything is fine. / Be attentive to the distance, / send my love with every line. / Every word should bring you closer, / and caress you with its tone. / Nothing should remind you / that I am here alone.
I told you I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process, because a good percentage of it is not even time spent writing. These "dots" have been floating in my mind these past couple of weeks, not quite connected. One evening, as I was poring over M's letters for the millionth time, wondering what I had missed, one question came to mind:
Do we ever really know someone's stories?
Marmee wrote soothing words to her husband, carefully choosing her words, omitting her struggles, focusing only on the uplifting. Jo wrote story after story, not knowing how to make her words meaningful until after Beth's death. And as I read and re-read Marilyn's letters, I couldn't help but wonder: what did she leave unsaid?
I looked at M's words in a new light. I've spent almost two years closely examining what she had shared with her mother, her scrolling cursive so familiar to me. I've spent this time feeling as though I had been there, had known her through her written word that has been preserved for over 60 years. Those questions surfaced again: do we really know someone's story? What was left unsaid?
Writing is a complex art. As I thought, perplexed, how to address such monumental questions in a novel, a new framework has taken place. I've been redrafting, trying to piece together the parts that seem missing, in order to complete a new, revised draft. This has inspired more research, more questions, and more plans. It has forced me to take a hard look at my own updates here. It is worthwhile to note that looking back, I too have been selective in what I have shared from her letters. These are now my two driving questions as I write new chapters and throw out the old. It is my hope to have a complete manuscript by the end of June. No, I am not sharing this new draft yet, but all in good time, reader friends.
As you go about your daily lives, readers, I encourage you to ask yourself, do we ever really know someone's story? Perhaps with more empathy, more kindness, and more perspective, this question can better apply to our own lives. I ask you consider what may be left unsaid. More soon.