“You should rewrite this as a novel.”
That’s what my father-in-law said when he read a very early draft of my memoir in 2009. I dismissed that idea out of hand, because fiction – that realm of Toni Morrison and Thomas Hardy – that was too heady for me. Crafting a whole world, with layers of themes and ideas, that feels like something for the Gods. Non-fiction, which is closer to journalism, closer to craft, anchored by facts and memories, has always felt so much more accessible and less scary for me.
I started seriously writing again in 2017 (that 2009 draft memoir sat in a drawer for eight years). Whenever anyone suggested that I try fiction, I snorted and said, “No f***ing way!”
So here we are in 2021. I’ve been mired in confusion about essay topics and feeling simply lost. I went for a long walk with my friend and complained about my stuckness. She said, “Why don’t you try fiction?” At this point I was desperate enough to try anything, sort of like an aging NFL wide receiver who decides to try ballet to increase his agility.
So here’s a tiny attempt at fiction. It’s just a vignette – an 86 year old woman looking in her mirror:
Eleanor used to tell me when I had hairs sprouting from my chin. Now I need a 15x magnifying mirror and bright sunlight to see them. Unlike Gloria Swanson, I abhor a close up. Eleanor, who planted the Magnolia Japonica I can see through the bathroom window, has been gone for eight years now. Its blooms used to enrapture us every spring, but now they just break my heart.
My son, who moved to London for an impressive job in derivatives that I don’t understand, only visits once a year. My daughter, who lives just a county away, comes more often, but I have to endure her sneaking looks at my sagging neck, my cloudy pupils, the photos of Eleanor and me. She still doesn’t understand why I left her beloved father, why I chose to remake my life with a woman. Facing my lesbianism and my extreme age makes her restive and jumpy within ten minutes of walking through my door.
Students don’t come by anymore. Once the dissertations are defended, PhDs conferred and career-making publications celebrated, mentors are discarded.
I still walk every day, no matter the weather. I still read deeply, albeit slowly and with a bright light. I haven’t published in a good long while. There has been no formal discussion with my publisher or the university regarding my retirement, but since I became ‘Distinguished Emeritus’ at 80 no one’s asked me to produce so much as a journal article.
So here I am, on this bright March morning in my dead quiet house, struggling with these hairs on my chin. The magnolia tree’s flowers hurl my mind back to the spring we planted it. When it was young and new I’d go stand in the bathroom just to see the blossoms. Sometimes I’d also catch a glimpse of my face in this same mirror radiant with the light of loving and being loved.
I don’t know what’s gonna happen with this fiction thing. But I am forging ahead simply because it is terrifying. I’m rewriting the memoir as a novel, telling myself it’s just an exercise, charting out a narrative following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Model, imagining new characters and a happy ending for the story. I am just typing and trying really hard to ignore the “What the hell are you doing, you’re not a novelist!” voice in my head.
I have no idea why I’m doing this. But I guess that’s the whole point of a leap of faith. You leap. You can’t see the other side!