The inspiration to write a pro-choice novel came to me in an intuitive flash in 1979. It was an obvious goal for a lifelong reader and women’s rights activist. Just what I needed to get beyond the dead-end professional burnout I was mired in. I knew the politics of abortion and reproductive rights, and I was frustrated with the hypocrisy of the growing anti-abortion forces (see Why I Wrote This Book). I was also dedicated to ending patriarchy and all forms of oppression and exploitation through socialist revolution.
The only problem was that I didn’t know how to write fiction. So it took me 32 years to self-publish Love Means Second Chances on July 8, 2011.
But that epiphany opened a doorway to a new professional life, and it became a transcendent personal goal while I continued pro-choice and other activism with different allies and groups over the years.
Developing a novelist’s voice
I immediately enrolled in a writing course and worked privately with the professor. In 1984 I quit my job as a production editor at a New York book publisher to work on the novel. By 1986 I was a freelance writer, contributing to graphic design and photography trade magazines. When I finished the first draft in May 1987, I celebrated by joining the National Writers Union and flew to Paris to visit a friend and interview Belgian illustrator Jean-Michel Folon.
Though I shopped the book around, then entitled Swimming Upstream, I couldn’t find an agent or publisher. With 20-20 hindsight, I know why: I wasn’t born a novelist; my characters were two-dimensional, the plot too mired in abortion war politics, the book neither thriller nor courtroom drama. And I made a mistake common to novices: I asked close friends for feedback. Unable to be objective, they offered kindly encouragement.
Meanwhile, working with a small group of colleagues from CARASA (the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, founded in New York City in 1977), I edited Women Under Attack: Victory, Backlash, and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom (South End Press) in 1989, and in 1995 Gynecology, published by the Women’s Health Education Project. Both projects increased my education about and commitment to the issues.
By 1989 I recognized that I needed professional help. After taking a course about the role of writers’ groups — based on the premise that writers need feedback from other writers — led by feminist writer Mary Kay Blakely, I joined a group with several class members. With its support, one member published a mystery. But the second draft I was working on didn’t gain traction, though I did establish two characters: daughter Christine Marie and mother Carole.
When my Dad became sick in 1993, I commuted to Florida to help my parents, and the book went on the back burner. Meanwhile I wrote to novelist Marge Piercy, whose work I greatly admired (and whose address I had access to while working as the book editor at the feminist magazine, New Directions for Women), and she gave me sound advice: You only have one shot so don’t approach agents or small publishers until your work is the best you can make it. That became my goal.
After Dad died in 1996, I knew it was time to get serious about learning the craft of writing fiction, so I joined a supportive weekly group class taught by successful novelist and writing teacher Emily Hanlon. Emily and I had co-edited BattleActs, the magazine of YAWF (Youth Against War & Fascism) Women published between 1970 and 1974. (The title was superimposed on a hatchet—so Women’s Liberation!) Emily told me gently but firmly that my writing sounded like journalism. To practice accessing emotions that I needed to create authentic characters, I did exercises in Emily’s book, The Art of Writing Fiction or How to Fall Down the Rabbit Hole Without Really Trying (www.emilyhanlon.com).
Contract with Mary Louise
As an outgrowth of those exercises, the character of Mary Louise, Christy’s grandmother and Carole’s mother-in-law, came to me unexpectedly on Jan. 11, 1997. Initially shocked and overwhelmed at her appearance, but eager to discover who she was and why she was essential to the book, I agreed to make a contract with her. Even though the conditions she sets in the following contract include strongly worded, insistent demands, Mary Louise never approached me that way while we developed her character over the next two years. She was always a wonderfully thoughtful and kind source of feminist wisdom, as you will discover when you read the book. So please don’t be put off by the strong language in this contract.
I’m Mary Louise O’Donnell, and I came to you this morning because I want you to tell my story. It’s a very ordinary story in many ways because I’m a very ordinary woman. But then again it’s not ordinary at all. Because this story has never been told before in written language. It’s a story that reaches back to the time when women’s babies belonged only to them, when women’s wombs were honored as the most holy and sacred of places. My story comes from the time when people lived in tune with the rhythm of the sun and the moon, the light and the darkness, the land and the other animals. It is a woman’s story, as only a woman can tell it, a story of birth and of death, of power and of subjugation, of triumph and of loss. It is as rooted in death as much as it is rooted in life. It is my story, but it could be yours. It belongs to everywoman. And it must be told now.
I have been burning to tell this story for so long. It is rising in me like a volcano ready to uproot forests and spew aside boulders, destroying everything for miles around. But like lava when it cools, my story will also lay new ground. And that is what I want. Because the power of woman, forgotten for so many centuries, but buried as surely in our chemistry as the urge to breathe, is both the ability to give birth and the right to deny it. Women’s power, so long stolen from us, defiled, degraded, denied by the anger, greed, arrogance of men, is the only thing that will save us all. We must return to the soil in our souls. We must rise with the sun and dance to rhythm of the tides and sing with the birds.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we have to turn our backs on all the wonders of the modern world. That would be both foolish and impractical. It’s imperative that we know that the people living in the high peaks of the Andes and on the broad plains of Africa and along the shores of mighty rivers in India and China are the same as you and me. That we share a common humanity as surely as we are all warmed by the same sun and navigate by the same stars. A worldwide consciousness is needed now, though not in the foreground, only as a backdrop.
That is why my story must be told in the now, not in the past. It is too easy to sentimentalize the past. And while this is a sentimental story in many ways, I do not want you to make it pretty or nice or sweet. I want you to tell it with all the grit and dirt, sweat and blood that it needs to make it real. That’s why I’ve come to you now because you’ve had some experience with pain and with death. You know what it is, in your own small, very fallible way, to suffer. You must be willing to take my hand and let me tell you my story and allow my words and my feelings to sing on the page. You must be willing to listen to me and to the voices I conjure. You must be willing to submit to me in order to tell my story.
Susan, are you willing to follow me? Are you willing to listen carefully to whatever I say and faithfully, trustingly, yes, even blindly transcribe the words I whisper in your ear? Not your words, you understand. Not the words you think I want to say, but my words. If you cannot agree to this contract, then we might as well forget it now. I know I may sound tyrannical, dictatorial even, but I have to make certain that you are willing to make this journey with me. That you are willing to act as my trusted servant, that you will serve me well in the telling of my tale. For I want very much to tell my story and I have chosen you as my scribe. Will you take a chance with me? Will you trust me as much as I trust you? Will you become my partner in this enterprise?
Every time I read those words I’m filled with awe and amazement. Mary Louise was inviting me — nay, daring me — to have the courage to listen to her voice as I wrote. How could I deny such a forthright, obviously feminist appeal? So I agreed, with the following words:
Yes, I, Susan Elizabeth Davis, will to the best of my ability cooperate with you, Mary Louise O’Donnell. I will listen well, follow your lead, and trust you to tell your story as only you can. If I get in the way, I will allow you to notify me, in any number of ways, both courteous and unkind, subtle and nasty, as needs dictate, in order to make me hear you. I will become your partner in this enterprise, your servant in this journey, and your scribe in the writing of your book. I will remember at all times that this is your book, not mine. That I am only your tool in the writing of it. Your hand, your brain, your heart. I agree this day, January 11, 1997.
The document ends with:
Now, finally, we can begin.
That experience totally blew me away! But it also validated that I was on the right path. Two years later I knew Mary Louise, having developed her character from birth in 1924 through all the major aspects of her life until the book begins in 1991. What’s most interesting to me, as I look back on that process, is that her character was absolutely essential to the book. There needed to be a mediator between Christy and Carole, someone who understood and supported them equally, though their solutions to an unintended pregnancy were polar opposites. How could an observant Catholic woman be so even-handed? You’ll have to read the book to find out!
I am reminded of a comment that screenwriter and director Rodrigo Garcia made about his brilliant, very moving, woman-centered movie, Mother and Child, which features three women characters who come together around adoption. He had labored for years on the script, but the storyline didn’t come together until he introduced the third character. Now that’s validation. So I consider spending two years developing Mary Louise as time very well spent.
The importance of writing class
My process was to try to write an hour or two on weekday mornings and over weekends, but invariably things came up – like work deadlines or demonstrations. So I set aside Tuesday afternoons to write — come hell or high water — so I would have something new to read in class that evening. The routine and the discipline of having to produce new work on Tuesdays were incredibly helpful. And then having feedback in a caring, supportive environment helped me see where I was on track, what I needed to revise, or when I had to discard and start over. Soon Emily and my classmates knew my characters so well that I felt I could truly trust their reactions and observations. It was a painstakingly slow but steady process that required oodles of patience, trust, and faith — none of which come easily to me.
Emily gave us three reasons why the turtle is a good totem for the writer: Because the writer needs a very thick shell to protect her/him from negativity — whether from without or within (the dreaded inner critic). Because the writer needs to be able to stick her/his neck out very far when going public with the work. Because the writer needs to know that eventually s/he will reach the finish line with a completed work. So I began collecting a variety of small turtles — stuffed, ceramic, wooden — and kept them by my computer to remind me of my process and my goal. Whenever I’d get discouraged, I’d think of the civil rights anthem: Keep your eyes on the prize! The turtles reminded me daily of that and helped keep me focused.
When I finally completed that first draft in the spring of 2003, I left class to review and revise the entire work on my own. Over the years I have come to value rewriting — the editing process of refining and fine-tuning that is now an integral part of my writing routine. I had hoped to move forward quickly, but I got sidetracked when there was a crisis of leadership in the National Writers Union. So I helped get a colleague elected president and became a vice president in January 2004. Again the novel went on the backburner until June 2005 when I resigned because of another crisis of leadership. Then I made up for lost time, giving the book my full attention before sending it to Emily in July for her final assessment. My final review had to wait until the spring of 2006 while I recovered from a knee replacement.
After incorporating Emily’s suggestions and completing my revision in the summer of 2006, ever mindful of Marge Piercy’s advice, I asked a highly respected literary agent whom I knew from New York’s progressive political movement if she would assess my novel. While she thought the characters and the plot were compelling — “a good read” — she wasn’t able to represent the book. Her only contacts were with editors who handled literary fiction, and she said my book was commercial fiction. But she gave me leads to several agents. Long story short, after approaching about fifty agents and several small publishers — I won’t bore you with all their reasons for not taking on the book — I was at a dead end in early 2010 and, to be honest, somewhat depressed. But by then the possibility of self-publishing was a much more streamlined, accessible, affordable option. With the help of a small bequest from a dear cousin, I did it.
I cannot stress this strongly enough: If you are serious about wanting to write fiction or creative nonfiction, but have never studied creative writing, it’s vital to work at least initially with a professional writing teacher, either one-on-one or in class. Then during the long time it takes to develop a novel, you might want to continue to work with your teacher or join a small group of peers who are doing similar work and whose evaluations you trust to be both critical and supportive. Consider it an investment, which has the potential to pay huge dividends in satisfaction if not in monetary rewards. If you believe in what you want to write about, avail yourself of all the resources you need to write your story in the most compelling, arresting way possible. Take yourself and your ambition seriously. Find a way to cultivate the craft of writing, think like a turtle, and keep your eyes on that prize.
Susan Elizabeth Davis