When I wrote my first novel, Other Waters, I was a graduate student in the Writing Division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, so I had the benefit of hearing lots and lots of other people’s opinions about my work. The core of the program was the workshop, a weekly seminar in which you and your colleagues commented on each other’s writing, under the guidance of a professor. Basically, people told you what they liked, and what they hated, about your submission. Sometimes they were diplomatic: “It’s really ambitious!” being code for “what the hell do you think you’re trying to do, Idiot?” And sometimes they weren’t.
As a journalist, I was used to having an editor tinker with my articles (my girl’s-gotta-eat attitude being, “you bought it, you break it!”), so my instinct is to take any suggestion I hear about my writing and make corresponding changes, which can result in a lot of literary wheel-spinning. I basically spent the whole first year of the two-year program learning how to decide which feedback was useful, and which was simply possible. (I’ve since realized that when someone says something I know is true, first I feel like, damn, I have a lot of work ahead of me. And then I feel like, Day-um! This is going to make my manuscript So. Much. Better!)
Writing the first draft of my second novel as a new mom living in Nicaragua and Miami Beach, I have no workshop to instill fear, excitement and motivation in me. But I do have one vociferous little mentor: my toddler, Amalía.
I work on my novel while Amalía naps (and save the babysitter’s hours for the freelance journalism that pays for said sitter). Given that naptime is my only chance to write (and, sometimes, to shower), I have a vested interest in getting Amalía to sleep. So, like all parents, I read to her. And read to her. And. Read. To. Her.
As the months in which I read to her, and wrote my novel, wore on, Amalía developed favorite texts, and began to request them come nap time. But she didn’t ask for them by name. (Lesson one: titles aren’t as important as we all think; at least I hope not since I haven’t settled on one I like yet.)
Instead, she identified specific books by shouting the name of the characters who made the most profound impression on her. Once Upon a Potty, a motivational tract focused on the greater good of no longer using diapers (think of it a Grapes of Wrath for the pre-school set), became “PRUDENCE!” in honor of the girl who goes from diaper to potty in the course of the book. I Took the Moon for a Walk is “THE BOY! THE MOON!” And when she wants to hear Goodnight, Moon, Amalía yells, “MOUSIE!” because to her, the stroke of greatness in that book is the supporting character you can spot frolicking around the edges of most pages.
If the members of one of my long-ago workshops were to show up for naptime, I know they would not be satisfied with name-calling; they would inevitably ask about other mainstays of fiction such as setting and plot. But Amalía only mentions setting when it essentially functions as a character. Hello, New York City is “NEW YORK CITY!” and, for reasons I can’t explain Good Night, New Orleans is referred to by its full name. And Amalía never calls out plot–except when a plot point is intrinsic to the character, as in the case of the iconic Mr. Brown Can Moo (although she leaves off Dr. Seuss’s call to action, “Can You?”)
With such a loud, and focused, reader on my hands, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the novel I’ve been writing during the course of this intensive reading/writing workshop with my 13- to 21-month old guru is told in the voices of three distinct characters. There’s plenty of plot, of course, and I researched the settings on-site in Nicaragua, but I wouldn’t mind if those were the second and third things readers eventually notice about this manuscript. In fact, I’d be delighted if one day people read my book like toddlers, finding the characters so real that they shout out their names when they want to get lost in their story. Now, if only I could figure out how to work in a MOUSIE…