Dr. StrangeNovel or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chaos

by Bryn Chancellor

Last summer, I stopped working on a novel that I had been writing for the last few years. I put it in the drawer, or on the back burner, or in the cooker (I never can get that metaphor straight) to let my subconscious puzzle out what it needs – because my conscious self sure as heck doesn’t know. In the meantime, I was itching to start something new. I drafted two short stories, and then, lo and behold, I started a new novel.  By the end of the summer, I had about eighty pages. So far it involves a journalist who, after her father’s sudden death, quits her job and opens a bookstore. It also features a Civil War-era prostitute, a dead parachutist, a unicycling college dropout, a hoarder, and a mysterious 1950s-era suicide.

In other words, it’s a hot mess.

To be clear: I’m not a big fan of messes. I’m that woman who picks lint off of furniture and straightens the corners of towels and placemats. This annoying habit is in part personality, but it also relates to how I cope with stress. Always socially awkward at parties, I compulsively gather cups and plates. When the grading piles up, my poor front lawn gets buzzed and edged with military precision. This nitpicking – which I recognize, of course, as a need for control – calms me. If I can manage nothing else, I can manage the elegance of a chair neatly squared against its table.

And so it began with this unexpected novel. I spent the first few months of its unruly life trying to straighten it out. I concocted spiffy plot charts and outlines and elaborate character inventories. I sat down and tried to reason with it: Everything will work out best for everyone if we just stick to the plan. I wheedled: Come on, baby, what’s the matter? I grew stern and exasperated: We’ll do this my way. Because I am the author. Because I said so.

It got ­– messier. The more I tried to wrangle it, the more unwieldy it got. First the characters went haywire: The protagonist – ta da! – has a daughter. And an ex-husband. And a half-sister. Then the plot went off the rails: I concocted a mystery that I don’t know yet how to solve. Finally, the structure started to crack: along with a more traditional third-person point of view, I started adding found objects, bits of news reports, historical letters, fake historical letters, loops and layers and fragments that somehow all relate­. I think.

Mired in this mess is a question of how to create fiction out of historical fact. Part of the book involves a true Civil War incident circa 1863 in Nashville. Long story short, more than a hundred women working as prostitutes were forced onto a boat, which then floated up and down the Cumberland River for a month and a half. When I discovered this history, I knew that I wanted to create a fictional character based on one of those women. I have found enough information related to the time, place, and event, but as of yet, I have found no evidence from the women themselves, the majority of whom likely could neither read nor write. How exactly does one capture the voice of a person from 148 years ago who, according to history anyhow, never had a voice?

Part of the turmoil, too (and this, alas, is always part of my chaos) is the questioning of self: What do I do now? Can I do this? Do I have the chops? Will this be another novel that I fail to finish? Why, exactly, am I a writer again? Am I a writer? (If you’re a fan of Anne Lamott, you’ll recognize this as Radio KFKD. Speakers full blast.)

Amid this mental flailing, I sought propping up from some of this project’s influences: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, for its fearless weaving of multiple stories; Richard Russo, for his humor and his unabashed focus on working-class people who run stores and diners and run in and out of luck; the weird, delightful movie The Station Agent, for reminding me about chance and the unexpected; and David Milch, creator of the foul-mouthed, endlessly engrossing Deadwood, a show based on a real place with reimagined historical figures. Milch says, “When you do research, you study and study and study. And then, if you’re a storyteller, you try to put all of that in your preconscious, [and] then you forget the research.” Lamott’s kind advice about turning off Radio KFKD is that “we need to sit there, and breathe, and calm ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.” While these models and advice offer reassurance, ultimately they don’t hold answers. I can’t ask them what they would do; I have to ask, What would I do?

Eventually, somewhere in the midst of this muddle, I sat down and reread these “chapters” I’d made. There, with my own pages in hand, I realized something else: I love this book. I love it in a way I haven’t loved my work in a long time. And it’s exactly because I have absolutely no idea what it is. This uncertainty and disorder is how writing is supposed to work. Making art is messy. It’s intuitive. It’s not about predetermined order or patterns ­– not yet. There’s a time for cool-headed logic and criticism, and eventually I will have some tough decisions to make in service of the story, but now is not that time. This time is about why I started writing in the first place: For the mystery. For the discoveries. For the sheer, uninhibited joy of it.

It’s easy, sometimes, to fall into patterns, into comfort zones, to seek to manage our creative work. So much is uncertain in this world that it’s natural, I think, to foist our need for control in our lives – and the solace it can bring – to our art. But it’s not what our art needs. Our art needs us to let go.

As for capturing that Civil War-era voice: I’m trying not to worry about “getting it right”; instead, I’m trying to imagine the world of one character. I ask, Into whose life have we come? What’s at stake and for whom? (These are questions that I learned from a mentor, Ron Carlson, when I first toddled into the writing life. I recently ran into him in an elevator at a conference. Through the jostling riders and whooshing doors and rattling pastry bags, he reminded me, in the unflappable way that mentors do: “Bryn, there’s no hurry.” Thanks, RC.) An important moment also came when I realized that I could change the name of the riverboat itself. Which means, it’s my boat now.

Bryn Chancellor’s short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere. Her honors include a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and a nomination for Best New American Voices. She holds an M.F.A. from Vanderbilt University and is an assistant professor of creative writing and English at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. Her work-in-progress includes a short-story collection, which was a finalist for the 2009 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and a novel tentatively titled The Magnificent Wild.

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