One of my heroes, Satchel Paige, is credited as having said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” When I ran competitively, coaches warned me that every peek over my shoulder was a waste of energy that could have been propelling me forward. Mindfulness meditation taught me to focus on the present. It seems like for most of my life, I have been strongly encouraged to either stay in the moment or look ahead.
But where does writing fiction fit into all of this? It seems to be perpetually looking backward. It allows me to “taste life twice,” according to Anais Nin. Through my characters, I mine past pain for the fiction of my present and future. I return to those old forks in the road and wander down the one I rejected to see if that alternative future might yield rich material, a new character whose story begs to be written.
This week, I looked back at some of my former fiction. An old story, one that I’d abandoned, called to me. Great, I thought, because that’s part of my “writing plan” for 2013. Write a new novel and dip into my Closet of Unfinished Things to complete and publish one of the many first drafts that I’d abandoned.
To my horror and dismay, the Closet of Unfinished Things popped out one really bad, bad, manuscript. (Bad Manuscript! Down, boy!) I barely recognized it as something I’d written. I guess that’s good, because it shows evidence that I’ve improved, but I cringed at every clumsy sentence, every typo, and every awkward metaphor. And that protagonist! I wanted to slap her! She has no spine. She is a dishrag. Every other character in this book—even the ones off camera—are more interesting than this little mouse. Maybe that’s why I’d given up on it in the first place. I adore the story. I love the themes, which are so relevant, so human. But it is not this woman’s story. She simply can’t carry it.
So I recast the lead, and I’m rewriting the thing. I have my doubts: Did this character fall into the wrong novel? Will a new character in an essentially character-driven novel change the story? Maybe. Maybe it will be a better story. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to plunge forward. No looking back, at least for now.