The Total Insanity of Writing a Novel

Here I am, talking again:

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For 15 years after I became a writer, I only wrote nonfiction.  I hammered out essays and articles that were published in magazines and newspapers, then a couple of oddball humor books.  I had friends who wrote fiction, but had no idea how they did it.  How could you create something out of nothing and lose all the boundaries (like, say, facts) of nonfiction?

For some reason, I started a novel in 1993.  I did it mostly because I was intrigued and haunted by a story I’d heard about a woman who’d given up a baby born out of wedlock in the 1960s.  She gave up the baby and never spoke to anyone about it — not the child’s father, not her eventual husband, not the children they had together.  That was the kind of secrecy and shame spawned by those days: It still held, even after decades, even after society had dramatically changed its ideas about unwed mothers.

So, I ended up writing a novel about a teenage girl who’d become pregnant accidentally in 1967.  I wrote it in the first-person and set the main character in a home for unwed mothers in a place I knew well — small-town West Texas.

I can still remember the sense of surprise and excitement I had about creating a small world and characters that nobody else knew about.  What a strange life that is, to go around making up things and people, to “hear” their conversations and feel their thoughts.  Was I crazy or a fiction-writer or a combination of both?

At some point, though, you have to open up that small world you’ve created and carried around in your head and let other people in.  You know, the kind of people who will read it and make criticisms (I would call them painful criticisms, but I have yet to encounter criticism that wasn’t painful, so why bother?).  Eventually, my initial plunge into fiction ended up as a young-adult novel called Don’t Think Twice (see it here: .

After more than 11 years, it’s still in print, which is a miracle.  But maybe the most surprising aspect of it happened when I was talking to my editor about it and he argued with me about some point or other about the main character, Anne.  It was so odd to realize that, hey, he knew the novel even better than I did.  That’s what happens when you invite people in.

A couple of other young-adult novels later, I’m now working on a novel for adults, immersing myself in another small world that lives in my computer and my head.  It’s that same sense of strangeness, creating characters who talk and interact and go their own way.  Walking around sometimes, I can hear them talking to one another.  And you wondered why most writers aren’t too well-balanced emotionally?

But, eventually, I’ll have to let them go.  I can only hope I’ve constructed a sturdy enough world for them to survive out there.  Bambi Meets Godzilla has already been made, and I don’t want to reenact it with the small cast of characters I’ve created.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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