Photo credit: Jessica Acevedo
Six months out of my MFA program and 60-odd pages from completing my first-ever draft of my first-ever novel, I read (while — confession time — procrastinating on said novel) a glossy lifestyle piece on buying your second home first. I don’t remember the particular magazine, but I do recall irritation hitting me with all the subtlety of the magazine's perfume samples. Part of it was the conveyor belt narrative at the article’s center: you start out, you scrimp for a down payment, you buy your first home, you’re lucky and rich, you get luckier and richer, you buy your second home and drink your gin and tonics on its twilit veranda. Part of it was the sheer lack of logic in the headline: if you buy a house with a sleeping porch and a rickety dock, and you have never previously purchased a house, then that is your first house. It doesn’t matter if you live elsewhere and only vacation, summer, or other noun-turned-verb there.
This was 2005. I finished the draft of what would become The Done Thing
and found an agent who believed in it. I re-revised the draft and started referring to it as a manuscript. We sent it out and the no's came, kind and gently editorial, but no's nevertheless. The voice was lyrical and strong but maybe a tad strident, just a bit overwhelming. The plot was inventive but perhaps a touch too dark. I re-re-revised. Against my instincts as a reader and as a writer, I gave Lida, my narrator, a BFF, even though her loneliness is what catapults her into the plot. I put in a subplot involving weekly manicures. I re-re-re-revised. Lida’s nails were beautiful (as was her riff on polish colors, “all of them named for fruits that were good for girls and choices that weren’t.”) Lida’s persona was softer and less decisive. More feminine, which is what the suggestions had all danced around, though only one editor had explicitly requested it.
I didn’t want to. I hated it. I did it anyhow. I was — not unlike Lida herself — determined, ambitious, ungenteel. And I was — again, like Lida; again, confession time — afraid in a way I would never publicly own up to, afraid I was fundamentally not enough. I wanted this book in the world, as if fiction, in the form of an actual published novel, would somehow make me real.
I joked with my agent that the line I would not cross would be to give Lida a cat in the name of warm fuzziness. And eventually that line — the feeling of it, if not its feline explicitness — arrived. To revise further, to have another go at the fluttery, gendered concept of likability would have felt craven. It would have felt worse than facing the fact that I simply wasn’t writer enough for the unnerving, tender book I had wanted to write.
I sat with that knowledge for a while and then abandoned the manuscript.
I wanted this book in the world, as if fiction, in the form of an actual published novel, would somehow make me real.
My husband and I moved cross-country. We bought our first (our only) house. I read, a lot. We started a family. I wrote another book, You Could Be Home By Now
, which was successfully published. And one Sunday afternoon, while Skyping about it with a distant book club, a reader asked me if, as I wrote, I always knew what the heart of my book was.
For the first time in years, I thought of that first novel.
Of how I’d known when I was unequal to its promise.
Of the unexpected premise — formerly impeccable sexagenarian spiraling hard as she plays mind games with the death row inmate who killed her sister — and narrative frankness that brought me such joy as I wrote it.
Of the tension between the compassion and abrasiveness that lay at its center, and how I’d known I was drifting further from that center with every pandering revision.
I thought of the small consolation that even though I hadn’t been a good enough writer to write it, I’d been a good enough writer to know when to stop.
I returned to the manuscript. I spent a solid week going over old drafts, reading rejections so old they barely smarted. Despite the bloat of all those revisions, the heart of the thing was still there, thorny, complex, and humane.
And I wondered if I was ready now. Good enough. It had been five years since I’d touched a draft, which meant I had five years of reading under my belt, of seeing how compelling novels work. Five years of intermittent domestic squabbles and office drama to help me work out the cadence of good dialogue. I’d written a whole other book and figured out how to nail secondary characters along the way. I gave myself a month to come up with one last draft.
It took over a year.
I wound up treating the old manuscript as an incredibly detailed outline and building the language from scratch, drawing on everything I’d learned about life and language in the intervening years. I cut ruthlessly, trusting — or maybe hoping — that I’d learned enough to write the book the right way, the unflinching way I’d wanted to from the start. No more BFF. No more manicures. No more wobbling on Lida’s part over the choices that drive the narrative. And I fell back in love with the novel.
There’s a poetic appeal to the notion that a human body replaces 100 percent of its cells over a period of 10 years while remaining fundamentally itself, and I like that the same can be said of The Done Thing
and its words — of this book which is simultaneously my second novel and my first. But this is quippy science, and entirely too simple: we don’t (alas) actually regenerate over the course of a decade. We accrue memory, experience, and skill. We age. And we reframe. I don’t expect I’ll ever have a second house, but I can take that decade-old style piece as general advice on the allocation of resources: nothing goes away, nothing is wasted. Go after what you want (that house by the lake, that wryly brusque narrative voice), even if it steers you from the rational path of first this, then that, then the other. Life happens. Life keeps on happening. For a writer, that’s the ultimate grace.
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is a graduate of Wesleyan University and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her earliest ambition was to be a balloon-seller in Central Park, followed by dreams of being a whitewater guide on the Green River, and then an archaeologist; now, she writes. Her family plays an elaborate, ritualized card game involving maracas; she will share the secret to a perfect blueberry pie with anyone who asks; and she spends way too much time trying to map a road trip that hits each National Park during its most beautiful season. She is the author of the novels You Could Be Home By Now
and The Done Thing
. Tracy lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and twin daughters.