The Extraordinary Project's blog is reactivated thanks to a guest post by Kate Leary. I have always admired Kate's fiction (since graduate school over ten years ago) but this essay's sharp and honest take on coincidences, signs from the universe, and noticing of patterns, finds especially smart insights: how a secret language sometimes seems trapped in the most mundane moments and, regardless of your belief, is often pertinent to our very next steps. Thank you, Kate.
On Endings, Costco, and Signs from the Universe
by Kate Leary
In early September I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for a year. My kids were spending the week with their grandparents in Albany and my husband was backpacking with his brothers for a few days and I went feral—falling into irregular patterns of eating, sleeping, and grooming—and wrote over 13,000 words in five days. I was determined that I would finish it during this huge gift of a week and then actually enjoy our upcoming family vacation. I would bask in the glow of this momentous accomplishment and let the draft rest during the back-to-school crunch and agonizing transitions of September. I would pick it up again in a month and revise it during the coming academic year.
But after an initial dazed feeling and a celebratory dinner with my husband during which I said, repeatedly, I don’t actually feel good. I just feel weird, I woke up in the morning realizing that I felt not weird, but terrible. It wasn’t that thing I’ve heard of where people miss their characters. I’m big on revision and I write long. I’ve known all along I’d still be spending plenty of time with these characters after I finished the first draft. Before I finished the draft, I was actually looking forward to revising. I knew there were plot holes and characterization I’d need to work on. But I’d had the ending in my sights for a while. The ending, I thought, was solid, if I could only get to it. I got to it. And I hated it. It pained me to know it was on my hard drive. If I died suddenly, someone might open the file and think less of me. That’s where my head was at twenty-four hours after reaching this much-anticipated milestone.
That day I cleaned about half of my house at a very detailed level. It took three hours and the rest was still a mess. Then I tried to go to Costco and took 95 North instead of South. I know how to get to Costco but nope. By the time I realized my mistake I was stuck in rush hour traffic going nowhere I needed or wanted to go. I drove home in defeat, not wanting to get stuck in even worse traffic and now doubting my capacity to make good choices at Costco, a dicey proposition even on a normal day. As my futile journey neared its end, a song by Aimee Mann, one of my favorite songwriters, came on the radio. It was “Wise Up,” which is nearly fifteen years old and isn’t regularly played on the radio anymore. It’s gorgeously sad and it features prominently in Magnolia, a movie I absolutely loved right up until its horrible ending, and then I was like, “Is this a joke?” And then lots of swearing.
There are plenty of movies I don’t like, but there’s only one that made me feel so much and then squandered its potential so severely that I still get angry thinking about it fifteen years later. On the other hand, I get it. I imagine the trouble was that there was so much going on, so many characters in pain, so much damage that couldn’t possibly resolved, that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director, threw up his hands and (can you spoil a movie that’s fifteen years old?) made frogs rain down from the sky. And there were lots of coincidences. I don’t remember exactly. I can’t stand to watch it again.
Hearing that song at that moment felt like a sign from the universe. It seemed as if no other song could possibly have come on the radio. And yet I don’t believe in signs from the universe. And if it was a message, then what was the message? Just quit? Your novel will be a disaster like Magnolia? Or push on? Because “it’s not going to stop ‘til you wise up”? Or was that line more about my character, who does need to wise up, but isn’t that the plot of most books—the hero’s journey? And was I maybe going a little crazy because my book is about a bunch of characters who write songs about each other, so life has seemed a lot like a musical for the past year or so?
And here I was, in a boring musical about one woman’s inability to procure groceries, stuck in traffic in a car my mom had sold to me below market value when she got a new one because she feels bad for me because I’m trying to make a living as a writer. I was listening to “Wise Up” on The Spectrum thanks to her lifetime satellite radio subscription (which she didn’t realize at the time of purchase was not transferrable between vehicles), a station that is targeted to people in my exact demographic. And that was the reason that particular song came on. Market research.
But still, I do believe in patterns. Patterns are what I write about, what I search for. They’re where I find meaning. I think this might be what writing is for. And this song was helping me understand a pattern, and it was part of a pattern. Sometimes when I’m working on a story and it’s all I can think about, the universe seems to conspire to help me with it. Everything I see or hear seems related. When I was finishing a novella about a priest in a crisis of faith, the New Yorker arrived with excerpts from Flannery O’Connor’s prayer diary, in which her incredible yearning for closeness to God is made clear, and it was a revelation. I put that yearning into my novella. It was meant to be. I know it would have come out in that issue of the magazine with or without me and my novella. I know, but still.
Six months have passed since I finished the first draft of my novel. I threw away the second half it and wrote a lot of new chapters. I still haven’t reached the ending. I wrote one chapter I knew I would probably throw away the whole time I was writing it, but I knew I had to write it anyway. The day after I finished it I took the kids to Costco. We made it! We ate samples and bought things. The visit concluded with me leaving the kids at the register and sprinting for the smoked salmon I’d forgotten. Music played in my mind as I sprinted back, triumphant. Some people in the line probably thought less of me and my parenting, but it all worked out. As I waited to take a left out of the parking lot, the kids drinking two of the forty juice boxes we’d just purchased, I realized what I would need to do to fix the chapter I was working on. I would cut most of it and start and end it in a different place, but it wasn’t a waste to have written it. I knew exactly what the first line would be.
What is it about Costco? It’s hard to think of a less inspiring place. Maybe it’s more about what Costco does to my brain. As I pulled out of that parking lot, I was headed into Easter weekend. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work on the novel for three days. I had recently been occupied with incredibly boring logistical concerns. I was already dreading the process of schlepping things into the house and finding space in our cabinets for the giant cans of tomatoes. I was looking forward to cracking open the party sized bag of Pirate’s Booty with my husband that night after the kids were in bed and basking in the blue TV screen light and waiting until the next day to figure out our plan for hosting Easter brunch (it really was a good thing I’d remembered the salmon). In other words, my conscious mind had checked out of my novel because it knew there was no time, and my subconscious mind took over.
I’m sure the radio was on as I waited to take a left turn. It was probably tuned to the Spectrum. I have no idea what was playing. My subconscious mind was too busy working things out, about to nudge my conscious mind off the problem of cabinet space.
Kate Leary was named a 2014 Artist Fellow by the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her novella, Holy Family, which appeared in Day One and is now a Kindle Single. She received a 2014 Sustainable Arts Foundation award for her novel-in-progress, which she is currently revising. Her short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Word Riot, Harpur Palate, and Night Train, and she blogs for Ploughshares. She received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she was a fiction editor of Sonora Review. She lives near Boston with her husband and two sons.
A portion of this post originally appeared on Kate’s website.