When you start referring to your new protagonist like a colleague you're hoping to connect with for lunch, this is how you know you’ve found your next story.
That’s how I know, anyway.
For months, I’d been sending lunch invitations to a character I’d met in a short story. He was a young boy then, and I wanted to know what his story might become. How did he recover? What was that thing churning in his chest? Would he be chasing life or evading death? I couldn’t know. From our brief exchange, the only thing I was certain of was that he was quiet, observant, and deeply affected by the scenario I’d written him into. I was eager to finish his story, but he would not come. He wouldn't even give me his name!
I thought, maybe, I needed to speak of him out loud in order to make him Pinocchio-real. I thought, maybe, I should start another story to coax him from my mind’s shadowed alcoves. I thought, maybe, he wanted me to sit patiently at my laptop and wait. Once, I tried luring him forward with frenetic research on separation anxiety, commitment anxiety, Oedipus, abandonment, criminal profiling, red heads, only children raised by single dads, only children raised by single dads who date a lot, only children who were the “secret” other child, boys without mothers who became men without hope, boys who became men pirating shiny place holders for hope. The boy was neither swayed nor impressed; he would not come.
This went on for over a year. I blamed myself, of course. The rest of my life is so busy –the life with teenagers and utility bills and workshop dates and an empty cat food bin. My writing life was routinely neglected. Sitting down in this chair to write has always been challenging. Correction: sitting down has been easy. Writing, not so much. Corrected correction: writing has been easy. Shaking the guilt of selfish and irresponsible indulgence, not at all.
I mean, there are, literally, a few hundred emails I need to address, like, yesterday. Receipts for taxes to uncrumple and sort. Non-profit applications to file. Summer camp dates to plot for my girls. Statuses to update. Websites to update. Letters of recommendation. of intent. of understanding. of humble requests to draft and send. How dare I use my limited time in this chair to write. Finally, finally, finally, someone ripped the duct tape from my inside voice and it bellowed at me. My inside voice has a lot of bass in it and rumbles like a Harley-Davidson anniversary when it’s not pleased.
“How dare you not write?" it said. "How. Dare. You.”
So, I’ve been determined to find ways to wrangle both lives into a healthy coexistence. I don’t have a writing schedule, per se, but am writing regularly again. It’s a relief, to be honest. Investing my creative energies in … my own creative energies has been replenishing. I grant myself permission, each and every time, to sit down and write without needing a deadline or a publication date or a W-9 or a point or the awkward dance of trying to make someone else feel at ease with my disappearance into these lines. Relieved. Replenished. Reclaimed.
I decided to let that no named boy be, but left the invitation and my door open. In fairly short order, it was another character who crossed my mental welcome mat. Shay had been here before, briefly, but we hadn’t planned on seeing one another again. She’d been discussed by other characters in another project, but there hadn't been room in that story’s construction for her voice. I wanted to tell Shay’s story now, but hadn’t quite figured out how.
And there she was. Letting herself in to roam my mental spaces like a house guest who’d been elevated from the status of “guest.” Shay floated through my thoughts, glancing at some, peering at others. She wandered about freely, taking in my knick knacks, bookshelves, sea salted snacks and framed pictures. She was clearly studying me as much as she was acquainting herself with my ideas.
Shay began giving me her story a few weeks ago. She’s insisting that I write it out long-hand, to begin. I don’t mind. In fact, I welcome the accessibility and ease of scribbling into notebooks and the essential nature of muse-in-mind, pen-in-hand. Last week, she had me practicing her signature. I’ll take that as a promise that she’ll join me for lunch again tomorrow.