Report: Week One of Writing “Boot Camp”


My new novel-writing schedule of ninety minutes a day, six
days a week has been kicking my Puerto Rican behind. There are many, many
logistical issues, which are not to be underestimated.
But one concept that has really been at the forefront for me
this week has been what I am going to refer to as tolerance of ambiguity. I first became formally familiar with this
concept in my first year of graduate school. I was in a class about teaching
Spanish as a second/foreign language, and tolerance of ambiguity was discussed
as a powerful indicator of a successful foreign language learner. Though I
wasn’t consciously aware of it in my first experience as this type of learner, I
know I must have used tolerance of ambiguity very successfully in some form or
another when I learned English as a young child when Spanish was my first
language. Basically, you know you are occupying one room at a time in a large building
full of many other rooms, most of which remain dark and closed off to you. But
you push through, putting in the time and
plenty of elbow grease, until eventually all the rooms have been opened and lit up brilliantly for you, and you have been
granted the power to move in and out of them with complete freedom. As a
bilingual who also happens to speak a few other languages with varying degrees
of ability, I can tell you, there is a very real sense of transcendence when this
Since learning to apply the concept of tolerance of
ambiguity to language learning, I have also applied it in many other areas of my
life. You accept the unknown, bide your time, and continue to work through it.
I often deployed it when I was dating. And I still do anytime I read a novel, a
suspenseful story where every chapter is a cliffhanger. Or when I meet
a new person that I can’t read and what I would really like is to be able to
“figure them out.” Going on a trip to a brand new place. Starting anything new. Parenthood! Parenthood and
accepting the unknown: Subject for another time.
Writing my first novel is challenging my tolerance of
ambiguity in many new fun—and annoying—ways. And it’s different from
cliffhanger chapters in a book I am reading. Because that is a finished product
where the resolution to the ambiguity has been built in already. By someone
else, thank you. My only investment is in turning the pages. And it’s an easy
one ultimately, because in those cases, generally speaking, I know the unknowns have been resolved,
the loose ends nicely woven together.
But now that it is my
work to do the weaving? My mystery “building”
where most rooms are still closed off and in the dark? These are just some of
the questions/issues I have confronted this week:
Where will one particular story line go?
How, exactly, do the different story lines come together
toward the end? Right now they are like hoses that are flailing around waiting
for me to tame them, to tie them together, perhaps not in one perfectly
straight line, but in something that at least resembles a cohesive whole.
Am I going to end up getting rid of this entire scene anyway?
So why am I focusing on it this long?
When should this or that issue be introduced? How much does this character know/see?
For the characters that need to die, how, exactly, will they
die? (I’m like Emma Thompson in the movie Stranger
Than Fiction
, only she is a chain-smoking Brit and I am a nonsmoking Puerto
Rican. Yes, because that’s the only difference.)
How much am I willing to piss off my would-be readers by
hinting at things that don’t get spelled out for several chapters? Do I even
have it in me to build this kind of tension like this?
Will this ever be a finished product that I will hold in my
hands? Will anyone else, besides my husband, my parents, and my siblings, ever hold
it in their hands?
One day I wrote 1800 words. One day I wrote just over 900.
Some days I stare at the computer with the beginnings of a stomachache because nothing! is coming to me. Other times my
fingers on the keyboard can’t keep up with what I am thinking, and I start getting antsy and making
notes in different places and wondering when I am going to have time to get
back to these notes, how I am going to find them all, and maybe if I spent more
time WRITING and less time thinking and making notes I wouldn’t have to wonder
this in the first place.
Again, these are just some of the questions. But I accept
them because I have seen the payoff, time and again, of embracing the unknown
and tolerating moments—or years—of ambiguity. And the truth is I feel so alive
as I do this that that is enough. This
is its own payoff in this moment of uncertainty. Not simply because it has to
be, but because, actually, it is!

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