After working on my latest novel Indulgence in the Afternoon for over two years, and finally finishing it, I was more than a little surprised at the niggling feeling that the ending wasn’t right. As though I’d been invited to a farewell party, sent my regrets, hope all goes well. And I slipped out the back way.
It must happen in lots of professions, but certainly as a novelist I have this work in my mind — even when I’ve committed it to paper — and it roams around with me wherever I go. Often it isn’t quiet. The characters are chattering away; new ideas rear up like wild horses. I’d done their bidding, and yet —
I let it rest for a week or so, worked on something else, and then I re-read the last chapter. I had the sense, perhaps even more strongly, that I’d skipped town before the end.
I had taken my character, Lucinda Yates, through all sorts of misadventures. (As she says, she’s lucky in parking but not in love.) I took her down to the depths where she finally understands the cause of her romantic obsessions; she’s been transformed. The problem was, I didn’t believe it.
After 103,899 words, I was pretty sure she hadn’t found redemption. But I didn’t know what to do, what was missing, or how I was going to get her, triumphant, across the finish line. Certainly, the answer wasn’t to have her fall in love again for another thirty pages. She had to get off that merry-go-round.
Lucinda Yates was a creature of my imagination, but it seemed I didn’t understand her. Even to me that sounds goofy, maybe even pretentious. But what other explanation could there be? As though a god peers down at us and says “you baffle me.” I suppose that’s possible.
The only solution I could come up with was to take her to a shrink.
I had seen a therapist a number of years earlier, and she’d been very helpful; she was smart, well read, attentive. And because her specialty was neuropsychology, she was also practical; she wouldn’t be waylaid by Lucinda’s psychobabble or obfuscations.
As I explained the problem to her, the therapist expressed her willingness to help.
I arrived at her office.
“So you’re here as Lucinda’s creator, are you? And you don’t completely know what makes her tick?”
“Well, you’d better introduce us.”
“You mean we’ll do some psychodrama?”
“No. Just tell me what happens to her in her life.”
“Is this like anything you’ve done before?”
In fifty minutes I told her Lucinda’s story, right to the end when — when the resolution was there but it was, well, phoney.
In the next session, we started in earnest.
“Lucinda is an actress. Each night, just before she goes on stage, it’s as if she blanks out. She can’t remember her lines. Hell, she can’t remember the name of the play. And then, miracle, the curtain rises, she’s launched. ‘Running and tripping and getting up and running until the thermal airstreams caught her and lifted her above the fear. She never thought it could, before it did. Once it did, she knew it always would. She could fly.’”
“That’s fine. But it stops working for her.” The therapist wasn’t beguiled.
“She has to describe — actually, for the first time she has to experience what’s inside that blank space.”
“She manages to re-imagine what happened, which was a tragedy she thought she had caused when she was young.”
“Had she caused it?”
“As an adult, she’s still like a child, believing she’s responsible. It makes sense, on some level.”
“I don’t think so.”
We talked more. Finally, the therapist said, “Lucinda would rather believe that she knowingly caused this tragedy, with its attendant shame and humiliation and blame — she would rather hold on to that child’s idea than face a pitiless world which has no cause and effect, which aimlessly batters her heart and gets no benefit from the bashing, nothing at all, it just does it.”
I was thunderstruck. The consequence for Lucinda, as an adult, is that she keeps getting involved with people who don’t really love her, who are even somewhat cruel to her. She allows it because at least she can experience causation, and with it a damaged sense of meaning.
All of this is shorthand. And it took an entire novel — and a therapist — to get my character to this realization. But it’s the right one. However, no matter how entrancing, I couldn’t end the book with a therapy session. I spent most of two weeks weaving these insights into the fiction of the novel. It was quite exhilarating.
Our desire to live in a purposive, meaningful world — and not be bashed about, arbitrarily, by capricious forces — is vast.
Although mine is more modest, this thought seems related to what Viktor Frankl described in Man’s Search for Meaning. Even in the worst, most hopeless situations, a certain response takes hold in us: a sense that soon, all will be well. He called it the “delusion of reprieve.”
Even if delusional, it’s noble to have such hope, no matter how we come by it.
There are many ways to skin a novel. Most often with your own skin. And sometimes by taking your protagonist to the shrink.