A few weeks ago, MJ and I were
discussing the rising popularity of the short-story form. “I don’t read a lot
of stories,” she acknowledged. “There’s not enough in them for me. I prefer a
nice long novel.”
I feel the same way, I told her.
Stories entail too much of an investment for a slight payoff. Just when I start
feeling I know the characters and begin to get involved in the plot, it’s over.
My new friends have left town, and I’m alone and abandoned, wondering what I
did to offend everyone.
She paused. “But you write short
True. I explained that writing them
was different. It takes me at least as much time, and a far greater degree of
commitment, to write a story as to read a novel. And like her, I write about
the same characters repeatedly, so I never really let them go.
“You should write about that,” she
Okay. I wrote my first Amy story about
ten years ago, after my best friend moved to California. It began as an
imaginative retelling of our first real encounter. I started writing it to
console myself for his absence by conjuring up his image, but everything
changed in the telling—the characters, Amy and Jake, were no longer George and
me, and the point of the story shifted, from a series of comic
misunderstandings that point to the promise of real communion, to a woman’s
stubborn but doomed resistance to the temptation to emerge from the depressed
and cynical stance that have kept her isolated and safe since a painful
divorce. I initially plotted a series of three linked stories, tracing the
development of the friendship from this initial spark through their deepening
friendship and into old age, constructing the adventures we might have shared
if George had stayed in New York.
But as I worked on the second story,
one of those situations developed that only make sense to other writers and to
people with unmedicated psychotic disorders. Amy’s ex-husband, Brendan, who had
had a cameo in the first story, burst back onstage and demanded a speaking
part. This was not part of the plan—Brendan was a plot device whose usefulness
was over. The stories were about Amy and Jake, period.
Except that they aren’t. Brendan is a
major presence; in fact, he and Amy end up remarrying, after Amy becomes pregnant
by Alan, another character who popped in unexpectedly and stayed. And that
baby, Jim, has his own story line, as does Jim’s son, Jonathan. Then there are
Amy’s childhood nemesis, Lizzie Farrell, and her camp friend, Laurie Mandel.
And on and on.
As you may have guessed, the series
burst out of the trilogy mold early on. There were thirty Amy stories at last
count, about twenty published, and I’m not done. I keep thinking I am, but then
I will find myself wondering why Brendan and Amy never had a child together, or
what happened to Lizzie in middle age, and soon I’m writing again.
There are spinoffs, too. Lizzie and
her son Louis appear in their own stories, without Amy, and there are four
stories (so far) about three girls who grow up in a foster home in Amy’s
neighborhood, one of whom is in love with Lizzie’s younger brother, Tim.
In some ways, my connection with these
characters is even stronger than to the characters in my novels, because they
are always with me. I do write about unrelated people, of course, and I go
through periods when I don’t think about this group, consciously, at all. But a
part of me lives, permanently, on Mercer Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where
Amy grew up, and on Bank Street in Manhattan, where she and Brendan live—or,
sometimes, lived; both have died, as has Jake, and I grieved them all as dear
old friends. Fortunately, I can time-travel, exploring the confusion of Amy’s
adolescence or Brendan’s youthful
drunken self-sabotage, and I count myself lucky to have such fascinating (to
me, at least) companions.
I read nonstop as a child, in part to learn about the world, and in large part to stave off loneliness with imaginary friends. My present life is full and rich to a degree I could not have imagined then. Yet I still feel the pull to populate an imagined universe. In my real-life friendships, once I’ve embraced you I have a hard time letting go, even if you’ve moved across the country. Obviously, this trait carries over into my imaginative life.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.