Chemo Vow

When I was facing my first chemo treatment at the beginning of April 2016, I intentionally wore a T-shirt celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. My friend Pam Kersey was with me that day, and as the infusion began, she offered to take my photo to mark the moment. I had no idea the picture would later be used to create the cover of my chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts (Finishing Line Press). This proved to be a nice surprise. Yet the reason I wore the T-shirt was to reiterate a vow I’d made days before: when I was all done with breast cancer treatment, I’d finish the novel I’d begun in 2002. It was a project I’d been viewing as an albatross. I was determined to tie up the loose strands of Kaleidoscopes, Viewmasters, and The Game of Life

The story is focused on a 40-year-old, Rubieann Blankley, who begins to dissect the cultural divide in America. It opens with her ruminations sparked by the film It Happened at the World’s Fair, which she is viewing in the Seven Gables Theatre in Seattle. Yes, Rubieann Blankley was born on the day the fair opened.

Fast forward to August 2017. I rolled up to my Oregon Coast cabin after retiring early from Cuyamaca College. I planned to regroup while looking for adjunct librarian work in Northern California. First on my agenda was to drag out this 2002 manuscript, which had been languishing since 2008This is not to say I hadn’t done any work on it. The draft I stored in 2008 ran some 350 pages. I’d meant to get back to it sooner, but I became sidetracked by poetry writing and other fiction projects. Meanwhile, the 2002 manuscript leered at me.

Six boxes of research materials awaited in my cabin, along with the manuscript. Or so I thought. As I sorted through each box, I was horrified to discover the manuscript was missing. Thus began an odyssey focused on my hunt for the manuscript (detailed in an essay I hope to place if the manuscript is ever sold). I did not solve the mystery of the missing manuscript until two years later when I was unpacking boxes in my new Davis, California, studio. I’d secured adjunct work with Los Rios Community College District and was beginning my second semester.

By the time my new district went into pandemic lockdown in March of 2020, I had a working draft of Kaleidoscopes, Viewmasters, and The Game of Life. I decided to call this project my COVID novel. I was facing months of solitude, and I needed something to do. Yet I’d changed considerably since 2008. I couldn’t completely recover my earlier vision. I spent time analyzing what I’d written during the early 2000s, adding notes and new passages. I completed a new draft by the end of June 2020. My story expanded to 480 pages.

Feedback was called for. Three people read and critiqued the book. While they delivered many good comments, I was disheartened to realize I’d need to revamp a crucial aspect of my original structure. To explain, I used two point of view schemes, which I applied to alternating strands of narrative. One was told with the use of an omniscient narrator who copped a tongue-in-cheek attitude. The other was constructed with a close third person POV. However, two of my three readers demanded I kill my mocking narrator. This suggestion was hard to accept. Not only was I attached to the said narrator. It meant I’d have to rewrite one third of the manuscript.

I’m proud to say I completed the manuscript on Thursday, May 6, 2021, nearly 19 years after I first started it. Needless to say, I am at a loss. Five years ago, I was receiving chemo treatments, most unhappily. I now have a manuscript built from aspects of the person I was in my early 40s and the person I have been during my late 50s. I know there is much to get through if I want to get the manuscript onto the desk of a simpatico editor. Still, I feel free.

My COVID-19 Novel

My COVID novel—probably chick lit (and not about COVID-19)—is a project I’ve been wrestling with since 2002. 2002 is misleading from an “amount of time spent writing” standpoint. I’ve probably put 5 to 7 part-time years into the draft I’m working on right now. The rest of the time, the project languished in storage, lost (but that’s another story). 

During the fall of 2019, I tracked down the manuscript and began organizing a new draft. I was happily writing away last March when my community college district released me to do reference librarian work from home. This afforded me more time to write as I no longer needed to commute. I could no longer encounter distractions out in the world.

So when we first went into the stay-at-home debacle, I thought, “Great! Maybe now I’ll finish this thing.” I kept chipping away during the traumatic months of 2020. Over the summer, I received honest critique from three generous readers, though not without experiencing a good dose of inner drama over what was said. I worked through all of their notes, deciding which ones I should pay attention to, which ones I should chuck. My latest draft has a whole new structure, one I’m beginning to like. Needless to say, the manuscript has prevented me from being bored. 

Just this month my storytelling inched its way to the apex of an important hump. In other words, it feels like I’ve finally gotten the story. What is left is myriad details, not to mention polishing and pulling a number of strands into a coherent whole. (I think I can. I think I can.) I’ve been passive-aggressive toward this project from day one—I’m still not sure I can nail it. Yet new optimism began to poke me last weekend when an important section fell into place.

This is not to say there isn’t plenty left to do. I suspect I won’t have a strong draft till fall. Still, a couple of weeks ago, I dreaded every writing session. I would force myself to sit down and write for two hours at a time. Period. While I can sometimes go into the zone and write for hours, I have to impose this sort of structure on the process when I feel such resistance rearing its ugly head. Lo and behold, new chapters began to emerge until I moved through what had been scaring me. This is not to say I’m not scared. 

These days I can’t wait to get my hands on the manuscript. I feel the urge to tinker—and tinker some more. I’m certain I’ll enjoy moving this story into its final draft. I will cheer out loud when my pile of chapters morphs into such an entity. This project has become the albatross that almost went into the bin. Now I expect to print out a clean copy by the end of 2021. I expect to get on with the business of selling the darn thing.

The Manuscript in the Drawer

It is weird to face a former self in the pages of a novel that never made it off the ground. I should say, “selves,” as there are bits of me in every character. I finished the first draft in 1995—the final draft was completed in 1998. I haven’t cracked this book open since the early 2000s. At that time, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I guess I thought I’d improved. During this more recent reading, I was gentler with myself. I did make it to the end of the story—I’d forgotten most of the plot. While the manuscript is certainly not ready to sell, I found many parts worth salvaging, including descriptions of Eugene, Oregon, and environs, where the book is set.

Some might wonder why I would bother wasting precious writing time redoing something I finished when I was a much less sophisticated thinker, and less adept with my craft. Why not leave the manuscript in a drawer (as a badge of honor) and move on to spark new work born of a mind that is older and wiser? With a handful of new short stories underway, I was actually willing to do just that, but I wanted to give the manuscript one last look before I buried it for good.

As I was going over the story, I experienced a number of emotions, as well as regular cringing. Still, I came away with renewed resolve to continue working on the project. I’ve decided it would behoove me to interact with the younger me, because the younger me had a different voice—one today’s me cannot completely duplicate. I’m now curious to see what an amalgam of the two voices will look like. It might result in a book the older me could never have pulled off on her own.

I lived in Eugene between 1980 and 1988—I pretty much came of age there. I find it a very different city these days. There are lots of new student apartment complexes. The campus exterior, as seen from Franklin Boulevard, is snazzier with its sleek Matthew Knight Arena and a couple of other buildings I don’t remember. The city is now preparing – once more – to host the Olympic Team Trials in Track & Field. I was happy to hear this as a couple of my characters are runners. Eugene has moved into a new phase, but folks still love to talk about how it once was—as I have done in this novel. I’ve decided to further develop the running aspects in the book. I plan to make my characters a bit younger, transforming the genre from young adult to middle grade. Ultimately, I’d like to enhance the humor, while making it more painful and resonant.

I must admit, before I got around to rereading the manuscript, I worried about finding it banal. It does have passages that made my eyes glaze over. What was interesting about looking at the story after all of these years is that certain notes—bits that could be highlighted with the “meaningful” marker—stood out to me in ways they hadn’t before. Aspects I thought would would come off two-dimensional weren’t as flimsy as I remembered, while the stuff I’d tagged to be the heart of the narrative didn’t ring out as well. I’ll probably need to construct a different tale altogether, capitalizing on those places I feel do succeed. I did find my characters more likable than I was expecting them to be. I think I can push them further now, taking them more deeply into their struggles, angst, and happier moments.

My next task is to go over the best draft and identify what I want to retain, as I also note where the story needs to go from this earlier incarnation. I’m still happy with the backdrop. I intend to keep 1980s Eugene alive, instead of moving the town forward and mirroring what it is today. This decision could put me at a disadvantage come time to sell the story, because experts in the children’s book industry – those delineating its various forms – tend to recommend that novels be set in a timeless place—or in a most up-to-date place, one with all the bells and whistles of modern technology, which apparently our kids can’t live without.

I don’t completely agree with this line of thinking. As a child of the sixties and early seventies, I enjoyed reading children’s books set in the fifties, not to mention decades prior to that. I wanted to know what my country was like before I showed up. But this is a discussion that must be shelved until I have something worth defending. Tearing up the old manuscript and building some new scaffolding is my first order of business, now that the new year is looming and there are a few more weeks of winter break and rain continues to saturate the Oregon Coast.