This week I reread my first book.
It was on my summer to-do list, but one thing or another kept getting bumped to the top of that list—a room that needed repainting, a filing cabinet full of old papers that needed to be shredded, a new shredder that needed to be purchased when the old one let out a sudden electrical-scented belch.
Okay. I was stalling. And although I honestly do love repainting rooms and shredding old files, even I could see that procrastination had reared its ugly head and was bumping up against my consciousness, whispering unhelpful things like don’t do it. And nothing good can come of this.
Occasionally when I’m in front of a room of booklovers, speaking about my writing process, someone will ask: “Do you ever go back and reread your old work?”
The answer is an unequivocal no. Not if I can help it.
I told this to a college fiction-writing class once, and I still remember them staring at me, some skeptical, some open-mouthed. Clearly some of them didn’t believe me. Clearly others thought I was insane. By my own account I had spent so many hours and weeks and months (and really, years) on the story, so how could I just abandon it? Was I ashamed of the work I had done?
No, no, I tried to assure them. I’m proud of my work. (Go buy the book! It’s great!) It’s not shame that keeps me away.
It’s something more like fear, but it’s a fear tinged with a biting, hard nostalgia. It’s not the easiest thing to explain to myself, and to the dear almost-twenty-somethings in my fiction writing class, it was damn near impossible.
I’ve heard of other writers who shared this feeling, but I wouldn’t assume it’s universal. From my own life, I can say—I wasn’t always this way. I was the type of student who craved the praise of my teachers and professors, and I often reread their positive comments along with the words that inspired them, so many times in fact that I memorized long passages of my own work, that still sometimes creep back into my mind.
(Is it weird to hear your own voice quoting yourself inside your head? Sure. Or probably.)
When I began writing fiction—seriously writing it, as an adult, with no possibility of a professor’s praise—it was different. I worked tirelessly on those short stories and vignettes and chapter ones of books that went nowhere, constantly looping back to reread, to slash and cut, to switch out a word, to repeat a phrase out loud until the rhythm and sound became the particular chord I wanted to strike. I obsessed over words like a poet; I tangled and untangled sentences like the grammarian I aspired to be. I put myself, mentally, in the character’s shoes. What would she be thinking right now? How would he react to this news?
I submitted short stories for years, getting a few plum hits just when I needed them, when I’d begun to wander from my open Word doc to an online job search. Now I was writing for publication—no matter how much I wanted to keep picking at the words, when the story was accepted, it was done. It was too late to go back to a contested comma, or add in a thoughtful reflection about childhood (which an editor probably would have cut, anyway, in service of the larger story), or in fact, change anything.
That’s part of the fear, then, that I’ll pick up the story and have regrets, the what-might-have-beens for the character or the story or even, sigh, that one particular sentence.
I wrote The Mourning Hours as a creative thesis for my MFA program. Or at least—I wrote a good solid draft of the book for that program, racing against packet deadlines and graduation deadlines and perhaps bumping up against the limit of my advisor’s generosity (I went about 200 pages over the page length, but still received liberal, detailed feedback).
Then I found a literary agent, and she pitched the book to various publishers, and I was offered a two-book deal, and even though I’m summarizing this quickly because I want to head somewhere else with this reflection—this was life-changing. The Mourning Hours is associated with that for me, the time that something went from a dream to reality, that hopeful innocent time when, to bring the book into the world, I had to unwind her moorings and point her toward sea and stand on the shore... depleted and lonely.
I have reread sections of The Mourning Hours since its publication, of course. I’ve read the prologue and chapter one to so many audiences that I could probably, even today, do it off script.
But until the very tail end of this summer, with my teaching life lurking around the corner waiting to absorb my time again, I hadn’t read the entire book cover to cover. And if I hadn’t made an important decision with my current manuscript, I might never have picked it up at all.
Last December, in a post-surgical haze, I had an epiphany with my current WIP: What if the story took place, at about the same time and same location as The Mourning Hours? I loved the time period—the early 90s—and have deep roots to the place—near Manitowoc, Wisconsin—and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it grew. What if the storylines ran parallel to each other? What if they intersected, with characters from my new work interacting with characters from The Mourning Hours?
The possibilities were too enticing. I kept playing with the idea, making notes, circling back, and writing. And writing and writing. And even though I remembered the story of The Mourning Hours fairly well—I knew that to be honest to both my new work and the old, I needed to crack the cover.
This isn’t meant as an advertisement for The Mourning Hours, and anyway, if you’ve read this far, it’s likely that you’ve already read the book. But here’s how it went for me:
Sunday, 8/3: Pick up the book post-run, post-shower, still sweaty, and devour the first 50 pages. Realize at some point that I’m crying. Set the book down.
Monday, 8/4: Read another 50 pages. Decide this is a sustainable pace, and anyway, after about 50 pages I’m so overwhelmed, it’s hard to read more. It’s like visiting out of the blue people I was once close to, once loved and cared about and worried over. They’ve stayed the same (I am aware, on some level, that they were never real people to begin with), but I’ve changed. I’m in a different place in my life. I’m in a different place as a writer. It’s too much.
Tuesday, 8/5: Read another 50 pages, this time in the afternoon, with a dog on my lap and a house fan trained on me, rattling the pages as I turn them. Get so sucked into the story that I forget for a moment that I know how this ends. Get so emotional that I want to correct all the characters’ bad decisions until there’s no story worth sharing. Put the book down.
Wednesday, 8/6: Read the last 200+ pages in a breathless clip. Remember everything about writing the book, all the decisions I made with characters’ names and places, the dozens of times I studied Wisconsin on Google maps, the way the title of the book came about, and how afterwards I had to find a place in the story to insert those three words. Remember writing the book mostly at The Queen Bean from early morning until the lunch crowd arrived. Remember how tentatively I shared it with friends and family members, so worried about their reactions. Ugly cry for what happened to these people, for what I put them through, and ugly cry again for the moments of redemption, some of which come too late. Set aside book and talk to dog and try to feel what I’m feeling, unmoored again, but not necessarily lost. Maybe even something more close to found.
I went back to my new manuscript at the end of this week. There’s more work to be done there, but I found I was feeling it more. The characters seemed more real, which is how I always want them to feel. And the place gave its familiar tug, like a giant magnet buried beneath the ground, pulling me closer.
And then I set The Mourning Hours very carefully back on my bookshelf, where it will be waiting for me in the future, a faraway time I can’t even imagine now, for a faraway, but still grateful, me.
Paula Treick DeBoard