On not revising (at least for now)

On the evening of January 31, 2019, I sat in a third floor classroom of Loft Literary in Minneapolis and stared at the blank pages of the teal-covered Moleskin I had just purchased. It was night one of the year-long “Novel Writing Project” class. There were a dozen of us there, and each of us had parted with a lot of money to spend Thursday nights together with our mentor, Peter Geye. We were all going to write a full novel that year, by gosh and by golly. And this was the start.

Write the dust cover copy for your book, Peter told us. I put pen to paper.

In the summer of 1934, 12-year-old Dorothy Acker hopes for two things: that the Detroit Tigers will win the World Series and that the baby her parents expect will be a girl. In October, the Tigers lose a heartbreaker to the Cardinals, but her second wish comes true—baby sister Jean is born.

Over the next 34 years, Dorothy and Jean grow up in and navigate the changing world for women in America. From Rosie the Reporter in WWII to the stultifying life of suburban motherhood to the radical beginning of the women’s liberation movement, the two sisters take diverging paths through the feminist landscape.

When Dorothy’s daughter, Bonnie, finds herself involved in the 1968 Miss America pageant, these two sisters—and the young woman they both love—come to understand that perhaps there is a path that all three can walk together.

Not bad, I thought, reviewing my work. I was going to call it Sisterhood. And eleven months and 85,000 words later, I had written that book.

It’s a book about my family. About my mother’s childhood, her time at Wayne University and the Detroit Associated Press office, and about what would have happened if she’d made slightly different decisions in her life. It’s about my parent’s courtship and wedding. It’s about the house and neighborhood and town I grew up in. It’s about Grandma’s visits every summer and euchre games at my boyfriend’s house and listening to Ernie Harwell do play-by-play of Detroit Tiger games through a transistor radio tucked under my pillow.

It’s a book about America in the middle third of the twentieth century. There’s the Great Depression and World War Two and soldiers returning from the front. There’s suburban sprawl and JFK’s election and the assassinations of Jack, Bobby, and Martin. There are riots in the street and news of friends killed in the jungles of Nam. And, especially, there are the early years of the women’s movement—the problem that has no name, consciousness-raising groups, and early struggles for equality in the workplace and reproductive rights.

There were story lines that (I hoped) echoed contemporary concerns. The young woman whose career is derailed by a professor who uses his intellect and power to seduce her. A neighborhood group in suburban Detroit bent on keeping “those people” out of their towns and devising escape routes in case they don’t.

While writing the book, I mined my own memories and my parents’ writing. I became skilled at finding the perfect story from newspapers.com to fit into my plot. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find out when Dairy Queen first started dipping cones and poring over handbooks for women students at Michigan State University in the early 1950s. I had delightful phone conversations with Miss America 1968, Miss America 1969, and Miss Farmington Founders Festival 1968.

When I loaded my three-hole-punched pages into a binder and gave them to Peter at the end of the year, I was proud of my work. When we met a month later, he told me how much he liked it, too. Oh, he had many suggestions for directions I could take to make it a better novel, and though I didn’t agree with all of them, I agreed with most.

A few week later, I sent the novel (now entitled Both Sides Now) to my agent. After she finished reading, we talked. She also liked it, but had important suggestions for revision. It was, she thought, too quiet. Too muted. She wanted more emotion, more conflict. She wanted bigger blow-ups, with resolutions that weren’t quite so pat. I needed to build in more regrets, more wondering about “what if.”  The stakes weren’t high enough to fully suck a reader in and hold interest.

And, of course, she was right. Peter was right. The novel would need serious changes in order to catch the attention of an editor in today’s market. And so, I needed to revise.

But, four months later, I haven’t revised. I haven’t even started.

I’ve tried to figure out why. It’s not that I disagree with the need to make radical changes in order to move ahead with the project. It’s not that I hate the process—I did some serious revision on the first novel I wrote (Girl Reporter, still languishing on my hard drive). Maybe it’s pandemic malaise, though I’ve been able to write (with my daughter) nonfiction book proposals while sheltering in place.

So I think it is this: Both Sides Now feels like a sacrament to me.

Writing it—and having it written—was a way to honor who and where I came from. It allowed me to talk about baseball and journalism, feminism and family, parades and pageants, and all sorts of minutiae that made me smile (or occasionally cry) while writing.

Tearing it apart and putting it back together would make it a better book, for sure. But I’m still not sure it would sell. And then I would have spent months (probably) dismantling something whose creation meant more to me than just writing a book.

I may, someday, revise the novel. I have pages of constructive notes to refer to when I do. For now, though, I’ve moved on to another fiction project and feel energized by it. And if people—especially people from my past who might also smile or cry at the familiar details—want to read Both Sides Now, I’m happy to share those 85,000 words. That’s what sacraments are for.

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