Sorry I haven’t been in touch in quite some time, but it was great to hear from you recently. Funny you should ask about Returning, my novel in progress, because after a very busy teaching year this past year, during which my brain was simply stretched in too many directions to focus properly on the novel, I’m buckled down (locked in? plug cliche in here) and revising, editing, and re-writing the novel at a furious rate. Well, work on a novel is rarely fast moving, let alone furious, even when it is graced with occasional wind sprints, but I’m fully immersed in the book at this point. That’s plenty.
Two days ago, I was, once again, at loggerheads with the themes of God and Atheism in the book. As you know, one of the main characters, aging tennis icon Chick Myers, is an atheist, and the extended section in which we spend a lot of time with his character for the first time, centers around this fact, via a “Rally to Save Chick” that a religious organization has sponsored for him, even in spite of his atheist standing. The rally was a buffet of cultural dissection.
For two years, I’ve loved and been attached to many parts of this section, the third “Set” in the five set novel. But in re-reading it a few days ago, in preparation for what I assumed was some minor tweaking, the God stuff just wasn’t feeling right. It was reading well. Reading great, in fact. Energetic writing and some nice scenes and dialogue, but I couldn’t escape a nagging feeling that I’ve had in the back of my mind for quite some time, which is that the presence of God, atheism, and a debate about these topics, just wasn’t earning its keep in the novel as a whole.
I originally was inspired to make atheism and God an aspect of Chick’s character by the the life of the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously debated about God even while dying of cancer. Hitchens was a highly spirited atheist. Many people wondered whether an avowed atheist would have second thoughts about God while dying, whether he would change his song and slowly acquiesce to piety. Hitchens, famously, did not. I found this very interesting indeed, and used it in part as a way to help understand the character of Chick Myers. The theme came early in the drafting and has been there all along, for some two years now.
But, like I said, the other day, some quietly lingering doubts came roaring up from the surface and started screaming at me, urging me to re-consider. Asking me: is God and atheism earning its keep? Meaning, are the themes, heavy ones not to be deployed casually, explored with enough care and thought to justify their presence? Though it was painful, I had to say no. So, for them to earn their keep, so to speak, it would entail deepening their place in the book and in the characters’ lives.
This decision had major implications. If I opted to keep the section as is, and to keep atheism and God as major themes in the novel, then the novel had to shift its weight further in that direction. If I abandoned the themes and re-cast Chick’s character minus these big themes, well, then I’d have a shit ton of re-writing to do. Essentially, I’d have to scrap the entire 100 page Third Set and pretty much start that section over. What to do?
So, to clear my head, I took a walk. Walks are great. They have a clarifying, reductive power that’s marvelous. I walked for almost an hour, and about half way through the walk it hit me. God had to go.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t finding the theme, and its effect on the characters, worth pursuing further. It was the realization that deepening that conversation would push the book into terrain where I simply didn’t want it to spend quite as much of its time. The book is primarily about tennis, reality TV, and the trappings of fame. God and atheism had always felt like a natural fit, but I had to admit that I didn’t feel committed to it. Not only that, I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted my book to be about. I was justifying because I didn’t want to scrap what I’d written. I liked it, even if it wasn’t serving the whole novel well.
But sometimes you have to kill your darlings, right?
So I did. I started over.
Of course, now that I’m halfway through re-writing the Third Set, which I think will still fill out at about 100 pages, there’s always the risk that I’ll screw it up and have to re-write it again someday after a similarly hard won realization.
But, like you’re always saying, Charles, one thing at a time.
So, that’s the update for now. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for being such a good friend. I’ll try to be in better touch.
Love to Martha and the girls,