NOTES ON WRITING A FIRST BOOK
My first book was a memoir that began as my master’s thesis at Columbia but then underwent many revisions. In the process of writing this book, I learned some of the most valuable things I know about writing and, not to be corny (but), about myself.
Before I even applied to graduate school, I was trying to write a novel about two women on a western adventure, following the path of Lewis and Clark. The working title of this book was “Lois and Clara” and it was pretty awful. But it did have echoes of Thelma and Louise, and you can’t deny that I was a creative young thing.
It took awhile to understand that I was writing about myself and that I should just accept that and really do that. I think (as the Booklist reviewer of CM noted), that memoirs are supplanting first novels, that first novels really very often are almost purely autobiographical and that this has always been the case. It’s just that we don’t call what Proust did a memoir, and he got to take some license. In any case, this book was very much about disillusionment and about my consuming desire to live a more “creative” life than what I’d been living as a newspaper reporter in some pretty hard parts of New Jersey. And what I realized as I wrote was that my “doomed dreams” were dreamed mainly because I was living a lie. I was a 27-year-old closeted (mostly) lesbian, and I could not pretend otherwise and still be happy.
That is the narrator’s great discovery in the book—that being true to herself is essential to finding happiness. It’s sort of lucky, I think, when being true to yourself means understanding your sexual and emotional chemistry. Some people have to figure out how to be true to themselves and the obstacle is nowhere near as obvious. Mine was smacking me over the head until I just couldn’t ignore it anymore.
But the best part of writing this book is that the route to the core idea took me through such marvelous places. It’s a book about searching, failing, and moving forward with whatever life hands you. It’s about my father’s family, which homesteaded in Montana in the early 1900s, when it was still possible to begin again completely in America—we were still such a starkly blank slate. It is a book in which I could imagine my grandparents, whom I’d never met, and in the process meet some long-lost cousins, and even begin to know my father better. And it was a book that brought me through some of the most desolate, and most beautiful, places in the world.
A first book is like a first album, and both are like a first love. We produce them from a young, raw place that will never be quite as young or quite as raw again. I think what I put of myself into Chasing Montana is something that I have been digging deep to try to find ever since: myself in conflict, it turns out, is perhaps also myself in its most evocative, most strangely lovely state.
Strangely lovely: Like a ghost town in Montana. Sublime.
Photos by Carol Caulfield.