MidLifeBloggers is moving to a renewed focus on being a gathering place not just for midlife bloggers, but for those who view the creative arts as an important part of their lives. The Writers Workshop is part of that, as is our continuing emphasis on writing. Last week we brought you a first-time novelist writing about characterization. This week, it’s poet and novelist Kim Triedman writing about finding her form in her just-published novel, The Other Room.
By Kim Triedman, award-winning poet & novelist
The Other Room, by Kim Triedman
I came late to fiction writing. Appallingly late, in fact, and with little in the way of training. Writing my first novel in my 40s and 50s was actually my first foray into storytelling, and much of what I did in service to this impulse was driven by a kind of recklessness I didn’t know I possessed.
While the downside of this approach was that it took me a lot of years of revising and revisiting my manuscript, the upside was that I never felt constrained by “rules” I had never learned. I went only to my gut and my long experience as a reader to judge whether something in my story was working or not. And I took a lot of risks without even realizing it.
Making the choice to use multiple points of view for my novel was one of the most important – and serendipitous – decisions I made. My debut novel. The Other Room (Owl Canyon Press, 2013), is a character-driven narrative, a tale of family dynamics and relationships strained to the breaking point by the trickle-down of grief. As is true of so many of our own family stories, this one was felt and seen by so many different individuals – and in such critically different ways – that the narrative could not be told without somehow “patchworking” its separate iterations. Like the classic Kurosawa film “Rashomon” – in which the same action is replayed through the eyes of each person present – this story felt like nothing if not the sum of its parts.
Most novelists make some very deliberate choices about form before they ever set pen to paper. In the extreme, some come to the task having already mapped out the trajectories of plot and character development – often in exquisite detail. I do believe there are some advantages to this approach, but it’s not one I could ever imagine myself taking.
What I experienced in creating The Other Room was that the form insinuated itself. The other characters simply started speaking for themselves. And for me, writing was too much a process of discovery to be countermanded by constraints imposed at the outset: there was just too much to be learned along the way. My characters and their actions grew and elaborated on the page, and I found that the best thing I could do was step out of the way and let them take the lead.
I should say right off that I never set out to write a novel. I simply woke up one night to a scene and a voice – a kind of bleary-eyed entrancement that led me upstairs to my computer in the wee hours of the morning. This ritual continued for many weeks, and in the architecture of what was to become The Other Room, that voice provided the main structural support – the scaffolding that both anchored the story and held the whole thing together.
But it was not the only one I heard. In the earliest weeks and months of the writing, almost everything came to me from the voice and point of view of Claudia, my protagonist. From the very start, her voice propelled me along like some kind of imperative – urgent and compelling. Slowly, however, as other characters took root and developed around her, I began to hear the story from their perspectives, too.
In some cases, these other voices helped to expand the narrative – move it along in the direction in which it was already going. In others, they helped to deepen what was already there, drilling down into a scene or a moment by offering multiple views of what had transpired. In still other cases, they served to throw the chain of events into a kind of hazy definition, challenging the reader to figure out just which version felt like the reliable one. Overall, I think, what the manuscript gained from the use of multiple perspectives was a sense of texture and depth – a kind of three-dimensionality in places that I particularly want to highlight.
As a late-to the-game novelist, and one who has reinvented herself a few times in my late-middle years, I went into this project wide-eyed and head-first. It was something I followed rather than lead – at least at the beginning. If there is something I have learned, it is that sometimes there is nothing better than going ahead without too much of a game plan. I let this novel happen to me. I allowed it to try itself out on me, feel its way into what was ultimately its best self. It was surely not the most studied approach, or the most economical. But I do believe that in the end the novel found its best form, and it is both wider and deeper for it.