Welcoming Back the Muse

Saturday, May 16th, 2020 at 1:45 pm

In 2014 my fifth book, The Mapmaker’s Daughter, came out, and I was thoroughly done with it all. Though it is one of life’s big thrills to hold a book in your hands that has your name on the cover, I was exhausted by the whole process, disheartened by the difficulties of getting any real recognition by my publishers, and absolutely nauseated by the idea of going through the whole process again.

In between the time I finished the manuscript of Mapmaker and the date it came out, my life had been turned upside down. My husband Jim died, and to my surprise, within a year I had met Dan, the man I am still partnered with today. I could see, from the perspective of  elapsed time,  how all-absorbing writing a novel is, and could recognize that one of the main reasons I was able to publish five  books between 2008 and 2014 was that Jim and I were both in constant overdrive together, he to produce his legacy papers on metaloproteins in molecular biochemistry, and me to wrestle these four ideas for novels out of my head and into print. We worked like dogs all the time and it was perfect.

When Jim died, there would have been nothing to stop me from continuing working in the  driven way I had been, except for my disinclination to do it.  When I started having a more normal social life, centered around friends and boyfriend, I realized how untenable it would be to embrace that all-encompassing state of mind it takes to birth a novel. Sure, I had ideas all the time—dozens in a year— but not a single one passed this simple test: Is it worth it to give over my life to this?  The answer was always no.  Writing a novel places a huge strain on relationships as well as  health, and I just wasn’t interested in that trade off.  Maybe I might have been, if an idea was giving me that electric sensation that Diane Ackerman has described as “ coming down with a book,” but nothing was.  I got immense pleasure about thinking what the plot, the characters, the voice would be for any number of ideas for novels, and then I would set it all aside because that pleasure was enough, and I liked my life the way it was.

And there I left it until 2020. Shortly after I got back from what I hope won’t be my last cruise assignment ever, Dan and I watched a documentary on Alfred Loomis, a Wall Street tycoon turned physicist who was central to the development of technologies like radar that helped the Allies win World War II.  I love the history of science enough to have written a novel, Finding Emilie, about a brilliant but largely forgotten female physicist in the French Enlightenment, so I was following the documentary with a typical level of interest until it got to the part about how this very dignified and proper gentleman scientist becomes besotted with  the wife of one of his scientific collaborators, and they begin a secret affair. The story takes another turn when he tries to have his wife committed to clear the way to marry his lover. His children prevent this so, shockingly at the time, he gets a divorce  from wife one and marries wife two, after which they live a happy and peaceful life for several decades until his death.

I found this story enthralling because here is this man of extraordinary substance caught up in the simplest and yet most complex of emotions—love—and wanting to keep his life intact but still be able to be with the woman he knows he is meant to be with. He knows that a scandal could upend work essential to winning the war, so he and his lover decide to live side by side in their respective marriages for over a decade, and successfully keep their affair a secret. So many layers, so much hurt, so much deception, so much at stake.

And there it is—the story that got me.  But what put me over the top is that it is crying out to be a stage play, not a novel.  I’ve never written a play, and it’s a new challenge to have only two means to convey everything—body language and dialogue. It’s a challenge to have at the most two hours to tell the whole story. It will be a new experience to have the end product not something I send off to my agent, but something that will see the light of day live on stage.  Though my chances of having a major production are about as good as having a best selling novel, even small staged readings will let me see my work realized. There is no specific outcome I require to make me feel it was worth the effort. It’s the creativity and learning that matters at an age where I have nothing left  to prove, and care only about continuing to grow.

I eased into this project, thinking in terms of IF I would take it on.  I said nothing about it even to friends and fellow writers because—and this may sound odd—I  didn’t want to be burdened with their encouragement.  I don’t want ever to feel that I owe this play to anyone, including myself.

Today  I finished the first draft of the first act, about a half an hour running time.  It’s rough but it’s there.  My play now officially exists as a work in progress. But I am a completely different writer than I was. I tiptoe around my computer warily, not wanting to get too sucked in.  I don’t wake up dying to go to work to see what happens next. But when I do sit down for a little while every day, I feel the old thrill of characters’ lives spilling out in what they say and do, and I know I am right where I should be right now.  “Thank you for waiting,” I say to the Muse, and she smiles.

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