On Monday, I hit the SEND button on my laptop, and my manuscript flew away. After three years and countless hours hunched over my desk, it was gone, winging its way to my agent and a fellow writer.
When I sat down to craft my first novel at 42, I never dreamed that eight years later, I would have completed my third. But I have. And I finished this one, tentatively titled THE FUNERAL DRESS, much as I did the first – sad that it was done.
Sure there are rewrites to do. But then I need to consider other’s perspectives, concerns, dislikes, likes, etc. And although there’s great good to come from that process, it will definitely be different for me and Emmalee, Nolan, Cynthia Faye, Leona, and the others from Cullen, Tennessee.
Family members have told me to take a break, rest for a while, do nothing. But I feel at a loss. My days are a little lonelier now, even though I have time to chat with friends and prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Fortunately, there is another story begging for my attention, but I know I need to linger in this moment just a while longer, even if it is a bit uncomfortable. I need to say a proper goodbye to this process, this journey, that carried me over a mountain and delivered me into a world that I love.
“The way I write, I have a novel in my head for a long time that I think about, and in those months it is so beautiful, so incredibly profound . . . The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head. . . . As soon as I start to put it on the page I kill it.” ~ Ann Patchett
A friend sent me this quote from Ann Patchett several weeks ago, and I have read it every day since. It perfectly describes the challenge, and possibly burden, I have been feeling lately when I sit down at my desk to work. Simply put, I have fallen in love with the characters walking through the pages of THE FUNERAL DRESS, and I desperately want to share their stories as honestly as I can. Anything less and I will feel as though I have failed them.
At times, I am bound by my words, so incapable of translating the images in my head onto paper. Then there are moments when it seems as though the words literally drip from my pencil onto the page. (Yes, I do use a pencil.)
Lorena Lane and Nolan King, among others in Cullen, Tennessee, have morphed from a figment of my imagination to nothing less than human – every day trusting me with a little more of their own stories. And every morning when I sit down at my desk to write, I wonder if I am up to the task, if I can take them where they need to go.
People often ask me about specific characters in a book or the writing process, but seldom do people ask me about the research involved in developing a story. And this may very well be one of the aspects of the process that I love the most. For The Funeral Dress (the book I’m currently writing), I have already taken sewing lessons, interviewed several Sequatchie County residents, talked to local social workers and visited an area funeral home.
OK, I admit that when I walked into the embalming room, I felt anxious, very anxious. The smell, the tools, the stainless steel tables all contributed to a certain amount of sensory overload. But to tell the truth, the hardest thing I’ve done to date were the sewing lessons.
I’ve hemmed a skirt or two and sewn on a few buttons here or there in the past, but to make a dress, one that I could actually wear, well, that was an accomplishment. And the process was surprisingly emotional as I began to translate what I was learning to what my characters do. Two of the women in The Funeral Dress work at a shirt factory (based one that really did exist in Dunlap, TN).
The seamstresses in my book are all women, and all are assigned one specific task – sewing a collar, hemming a dress, etc. These women do the same task, day after day, year after year. In fact, a woman who makes collars is simply called a collar maker. A woman who hems a dress is called a bottom hemmer. All of this is rooted in truth, in the true stories of the women who tirelessly worked at the Dunlap Shirt Factory.
It’s so often in the research that my characters become people, so real that there are moments in the day when I forget they are not. I feel their pain and their joy, and it’s that part of the writing process that feels the most vulnerable and the most intimate for me. It is that perfect moment when I loose myself in the story.