By Guest Contributor Virginia Pye
We all know writers with unpublished manuscripts hidden in desk drawers. Successful authors often admit to a half dozen failed, boxed-away books. Emily Dickinson bundled her poems with string and placed them under her bed. But what about the abandoned manuscripts that won’t stay put in their hiding places? The ones that haunt the writer? That won’t leave us alone?
The novel I’m currently writing is one such intractable presence. Some of its scenes were originally penned decades ago as part of my very first book. An agent couldn’t sell that book and eventually returned it to me. I buried the manuscript deep, but never totally forgot it. Over the years, I’ve mined it for scenes and phrases, ideas and images that I’ve re-purposed for subsequent manuscripts.
Now, almost thirty years later, I’m even returning to the central premise of that early story: a high school girl gets caught up in the 1969 student take over of Harvard where her father is a dean. The events of the protest propel her on a journey far from home and it’s not clear she’ll ever fully return. In one form or another I’ve been telling this story for decades. And as with previous efforts, I continue to find riches in the raw material of that first project.
My debut novel, River of Dust, was born out of the beginning of a previous unpublished novel. I extracted and re-envisioned those first thirty pages to tell a much-expanded tale. The earlier writing helped coax my imagination, providing an entry door to a more vivid world.
I’ve also turned to my poetry to enhance my fiction. In the midst of writing my second published novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, I suddenly remembered an old poem I had written that seemed perfectly suited to the fictional moment I was creating. I tracked down the poem—thankfully saved on my computer—and borrowed a metaphor from it that compared the men in my family to bent and thin New England birches in winter. Only now I used the metaphor to describe a character in the completely different setting of rural 1930s China. In other words, I “stole” from my own poem, and used it word for word, omitting only the line breaks.
It’s a truism that artists borrow from their predecessors, but I think we do it even more from ourselves. The details may change, but I believe that we write the same story over and over again during the course of our writing lives. That story is essential to who we are, not just as writers but as people. Deeply imagined and felt, its images and language run in our veins.
What I mean to say is that we each have our own Yoknapatawpha, even if our characters stray far beyond one imagined county. The setting may change, but as writers we return to the same hometown again and again. We search for something there that is our own and no one else’s. Oftentimes it buzzes with activity even when tucked away in locked desk drawers. If we listen well, we can hear it inviting us to return and collect the treasure that is ours.
Virginia Pye is the author of two novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust. Her award winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays are on line at New York Times Opinionator, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Please visit her at: www.virginiapye.com.