Formative Narratives

So basically as soon as I said that I was going to finish the second draft of werewolf story, I experienced my patented reoutline-everything-five-chapters-til-the-end part of my ~process. (This time, on a notepad in the car on the way back from a bridal shower for about an hour. I was pretty boring company, I’m afraid.) I did this I think three times with story, so I’m not totally sure why I thought I would make it to the end of this draft? I mean, I kind of still will, but with the last few chapters written as though I’ve already done everything I now know I need to do to the middle, just to see what they look like. I’m always somehow taken by surprise when my sudden windfall of clarity happens, but I suppose I shouldn’t be at this point. It always kind of makes me laugh, actually. It’s like my brain needs to get almost there . . . before it can reboot.

Onward with werewolf story then! Revision and rewriting are my favorite thing to do. Getting closer and closer and closer to the story you know the characters deserve.

(Also: Health Stuff is on the mend. Yay!)

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Miserables, which I just saw on Broadway with my mom last week. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Les Mis live (the first time I was 10 years old). I have also watched the movie musical many a time since it came out, and I’ve also read the book (known affectionately as the brick by fans) quite a few times as well. Probably 90% of my reading is children’s and YA books, but when I go for an adult title, I guess my attitude is go big or go home. So considering my 15 year old love affair with this story, it is definitely fair to say that Les Mis is one of my formative narratives.

Everyone’s familiar with the hyperbolic claim that “this book changed my life.” Usually that’s just shorthand for “it was really good.” And I don’t even mean that disparagingly — hyperbole is one of my preferred modes of communication. (For example, if as many stories had actually “completely destroyed me emotionally” as I have claimed, I probably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to write this blog post.) But for the most part, life trucks along mostly unchanged even after a good book.

Sometimes, though, “this book changed my life” isn’t hyperbole. Sometimes it’s actually an understatement. There are some narratives that I can honestly say didn’t just change my life; they shaped it. I have several, but for me the main two are Harry Potter and Les Mis. Harry Potter’s a bit obvious, as a huge percentage of my “kids who liked to read and were born in the late 80s” demographic also fit that bill. The fact remains, though, that the Kathleen who lives in an alternate universe where Harry Potter never existed is not the Kathleen writing this post right now. She’s probably fairly similar — for example, I had alighted upon my writing ambition pre-HP, because I’m one of those obnoxious people who’s always known what she wants to do — but so many of my professional interests, political views, and personal relationships and patterns can be traced very clearly back to my childhood and adolescence with those books.

Similarly with Les Mis, I’ve been engaging with these characters and narratives for three-fifths of my entire life. I fancy myself a bit of a Les Mis connoisseur, with an oddly detailed memory of minute performance details and musical-novel connections. Also, I have literally been reenacting my favorite death scene  from the book (listen, Les Mis has a lot of them) for 12 years, maybe? Including on the school bus in middle school, all the way up to outside a Tasty Burger for an audience of grad school friends. So that’s . . . a weird thing about me.

But it’s not all encyclopedic recall and gushing fannishness. It’s determining the kinds of narratives that matter most to me, both as a guide for creating my own fiction and also for creating my own life. Of course real life has more moving parts than even a beast of a book like Les Mis, and any editor would tell you that it is overcrowded, poorly paced, and has far too many loose ends and dropped plotlines. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t plan our lives like narrative (or that I don’t, at least). We expect a satisfying conclusion to any number of our efforts. We want our own character development to pay off, and we hope that we accomplish something. (I am assuming here that no one actually wants to live the lives portrayed in the drab cynical contemporary adult realism subsection of the market.) (I’M NOT SAYING ALL CONTEMPORARY ADULT REALISM IS BAD. Just, you know, a lot of it.)

My formative narratives are the stories that helped direct the rising action of my own life really early on. I honed my opinion-forming skills on these books. I went on HP-verse werewolf rights tirades in eighth grade that were actually my first opinions about healthcare. That same year, I was zoning out in class to consider the implications of How Cynicism Sucks, But More Importantly, Is Incorrect embedded the character of Grantaire in Les Mis. Much later on, I learned to be critical of these texts, and if that’s difficult, it’s because these texts have become a part of me, and being critical of oneself is always difficult, but also necessary. (I need to keep getting better at this, especially with regards to Harry Potter. But I’m working on it. And I’m certainly trying to not have the same flaws in my own writing, especially with regards to representation of race and sexuality.) (Being critical is easier with Les Mis, mostly because if you don’t find some things to disagree about with a well-off white guy from the 1800s, you probably have to do some pretty urgent reevaluation.)

When I was watching Les Mis last week, a lot of things were going through my head. I cried a lot, because that’s what I do. I cataloged actors’ facial expressions with a furious intensity, mostly because MY MOM GOT US SUCH GOOD SEATS. (Last time I saw it, I couldn’t so much . . . see. But that production [25th anniversary UK tour, baby! I was studying abroad] was so breathtakingly perfect that it kind of didn’t even matter.) But there where also moment when I would feel a sweet, aching tenderness. Parts where I thought: ah, yes. That’s where that part of myself was born. Hello, little me. I still love this. I still care about this. I’m still here, trying to make myself in the image of narratives of hope, and love, and the possibility of change.

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