Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter One of the Novel Novel Called "Sister Mysteries," which DEFINITELY isn't a Novel, or at least this part isn't

Believe me because I'm not lying this time.

By Claudia Ricci

This time, I promise I will tell the true story. Because I've got to, to save me and the nun, Sister Renata. And now, I've only got 46 days to do it.

I have tried to lie about all of it so many times before, and always, always, it fails. The story at one point or another always and inevitably starts to fall apart. In this last version, Switch!!, I got as far as Chapter Fourteen. I haven't given up on Switch!!, but it's starting to feel a bit...shaky. Like I cannot sustain it. The lying. The fiction. The idea that I am making this mixed-up narrator Gina Morrison tell the story that I am supposed to tell.

It feels like like I am trying to hold up a house of cards, made out of words that don't feel write. I mean right. I will keep trying to write Switch!!, but I warn all those loyal readers of that novel (to date, the site has had nearly 8,000 hits!): it is possible that I might not be able to make it to the end of that particular narrative thread, I can feel myself heading in another direction, so you just might have to SWITCH!! gears right now, right here.

I've been here before. More times than I can count. I have written thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of pages trying to get this "novel" write. I mean right. Trying to tell this story that doesn't seem to want to be told.

So now I've decided, what the hell, I will just tell the true story, here on this new blog. Because clearly it is time. Because if I don’t write the book, right now, right here, if I don't look deeply into the issues that it raises, I am taking a chance. I am risking my health. I cannot take that chance. You could say that my life is on the line here, so please. Listen. Hear me out.

The medical intuitive who helped diagnose my cancer in the summer of 2003 -- she was 3,000 miles away from me, and she had never even met me, didn't even know my last name -- convinced me of this: she said that in order to heal, I had to come to grips with certain underlying issues related to my mother. Somehow, I had to stop resenting her illness and what it did to me as a child.

I know now that it isn't just the asthma I resented. It is her anxiety too. Her deeply fearful view of life. Her sometimes dark and dismal attitude. But how I am supposed to stop resenting this? I’m not exactly sure. But I am determined, you could maybe even say desperate, to figure it out, to let go of all that negative feeling I harbor toward my mother. I know I want to let go of it because I love my mother. And she is 84. How many more years do I have to resolve this?

So here now is Sister Mysteries and if you would, please, I would very much appreciate your reading this book. Because like all writers -- read Lori Cullen's blog, Writing in Motion, if you have any doubts -- I fight despair. More often than not, I lose steam. I am at a loss for inspiration.

Lori's challenge is simple: finish your book by the end of the year. The year having only 46 more days.

It is amazing but for the first time, I'm thinking, I can do this. I can finish a book I started 16 years ago. And I can do it in a matter of 46 days.

Too often during those 16 years, I have been telling myself what all writers tell themselves as they write books: "this is just nuts, you must be crazy to write this stupid stupid book. There is no way in hell you are going to finish this stupid stupid book."

And here I have already finished and published two novels (you might enjoy my new one, Seeing Red, which is due out in about a week.)
Still, every book is a new and different challenge. Every day is a blank new screen.

Like all writers, I need readers. I need people to tell me to keep going. Even if you just wrote those two words, KEEP GOING. That's all it takes to feed the writing beast, to make a writer go forward with more words.


OK, so it started almost 16 years ago. Yes, sixteen years! It's completely absurd I know. When I reminded my writer friend Peg the other day that it had been sixteen years, she laughed that hearty laugh of hers and said, "Claud, if your book were a kid, then it would be a teenager now. It would be DRIVING!"

Yes, well, this kid has been driving for a long, long time. It has been driving me totally and completely insane.

It started as a novel. The first vision came to me while I was lying on the floor doing leg lifts, in the middle of January. I could say perhaps that it was snowing, but I don’t know for sure. I believe there was ice on the window. Outdoors snowdrifts were blowing everywhere. Inside, the NPR station on my night table was playing a piece of pulsing flamenco music. I had my face down on the cool pine floorboards and one leg was in the air and out of nowhere came a vision of a nun.
A nun with a white wimple bound so tightly across her forehead that she had a red crease in the flesh just above her bushy eyebrows. She was staring into a small mirror. She was unbuttoning her scratchy wool habit. She was disrobing, dropping her skirt, and putting on a black satin flamenco dress with red ruffles.
She was tying tap shoes onto her petite feet. She was smearing bloody red lipstick on her lips, and decorating her eyes in mascara.

What was this? I had absolutely no idea. But it didn’t matter. I hurried downstairs to my computer to write it down. Soon enough it became the first chapter of a “novel,” a novel I called Sister Mysteries. The first chapter is called "Renata Dancing." It's vivid and exotic and a bit erotic. And the amazing thing: it didn't take me but a few hours to write it. More chapters followed in quick succession. Before I knew it, I had spun a whole world, created the nun's world, and I was inhabiting that world – out in California in a convent on a dry golden landscape with hills dotted by live oak and deep forests of towering redwood trees. I could step into that world at will. Indeed, I felt like I lived there.

The book felt like it was writing itself. I spun the chapters out one after another.
And then, a few months later, I was accepted at a writer’s colony. Where else, but in a dry golden California landscape dotted
by live oak trees and deep forests of towering redwood trees.

By this time, I had decided that I was writing this novel as a sort of gift to a dear friend -- someone who was as close to me as a sister -- a sister who was ill.

Indeed, my dear friend Nina had been struggling with breast cancer. Oddly, I told myself that I would send my friend Nina the chapters I was writing, and she could read them while lying in bed in the hospital, or getting chemo drips. I told myself that she needed distraction. She would read them, and be distracted from her pain and suffering.

Odd indeed, considering what happened to me later on.

Anyway, back to the nun’s tale. It was a piece of cake to write Sister Renata’s story. I wrote about 120 pages total and people read it and just loved the writing. I didn’t even need to make corrections. Some people asked if what I wrote was true, because it felt so much like it was. No matter that the events I wrote about happened in 1883. I could see every minute detail. I could write pages – and did-- about every detail of the convent. I could see the black cracks snaking through the blue and white tiled fountain in back of the convent. I could see the texture of the white adobe walls in the nun’s chamber. I could feel the straw in her mattress and how it scratched her back. I could see exactly how Sister Renata and her buddy, Sister Teresa, laughed and thinned the carrots while kneeling in the garden. I could see the two of them picnicking on a blanket beneath a giant live oak on the hillside. I could see them feeding the chickens, lifting the smooth pellets of dry corn that they heaped into the laps of their white cotton aprons.

I could see the flowers embroidering the long cape that Renata wore when she visited her cousin Antonie. Renata, in this story, is accused of killing Antonie, by slicking his throat.
Ah, but here, I am getting ahead of myself. I am getting distracted.

Back to the writer’s colony in California. When I arrived there, I thought I was writing a novel and my writer self decided that I needed an outer story for the nun’s tale.

It was that outer story that I worked on doggedly at that first writer’s colony in 1996.
It was that outer story that would ultimately “sink” me. Or at least that’s the way I used to think.

I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote for years. I wrote to the point that I had piles of manuscripts like small white mountains circling the walls my study.

I burned some versions of the manuscript in a small bonfire in my front yard.

I gave up writing that novel so many times I cannot count. No matter how many times I gave up, I started again. Perhaps because I loved so much inhabiting the world of the nun.

At one point, in the late 1990s, I got so depressed that my sister insisted on bringing me to a new shrink. The shrink – at Harvard University—listened carefully to me when I said that I couldn’t write this book about a nun who lived back in 1883. I told her that I was going crazy. I told her that I had three kids to raise and that I couldn’t afford to go crazy.
She studied me for a moment and smiled. And then she said. “Have you considered getting past life regression therapy?”

I blinked.

I left her office more confused than when I went in.

Well, so, there is a lot more to this story.

But let’s cut to the chase. At some point, I took those mountains of pages and threw out a ton and burned a few more. And then I carefully lay the remaining pages of that very dangerous book into a blue crate, and covered it with a Spanish shawl, covered in red roses.

I set the crate into the corner of the downstairs closet where I keep the vacuum cleaner and the ironing board. I took a giant black garbage bag full of rags and set it on top of the shawl-draped crate. And then, I just left it there.

I told myself that I would wait until the Universe gave me permission to write the book. Maybe I was just going about it the wrong way. Or perhaps the problem was that I was too much in a hurry to write it. After all, if I was writing about a nun who lived more than 100 years ago, then I had perhaps to be… more patient.

Well, so, today, I have opened the crate and taken out the first pages at the top, the one with the nun's photo on it.
Today is the day. Today is the day that I must write again. I must move forward. Most importantly, I must tell the truth, and not dare call it a novel.

Sister Mysteries is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, in which several authors are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries is contained in a series of interconnected blogs, one of which, Castenata, is a story of a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.

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