Nourishing my Novel with Bike Tires
I wrote the first draft of my novel—sketch really—by hand. I was alone in a hotel room, cooking on a hot plate and taking breaks in a courtyard that smelled of cat pee. It was pure magic. I’d just left my career in politics at the Minnesota State Capitol to pursue my writing. I didn’t have the words to explain myself to colleagues. But even as I felt like a runaway, the words of my classy-trashy ghost story flowed from hand to pen to page. Characters came to life, landscapes took shape, and plot unfolded in a fever of ink.
Then I set those notebooks aside for two years to work on other projects.
I came back to the novel last winter, writing through the morning dark. I typed, kept track of word count, researched historical figures, and composed a mixtape with a song for each chapter. The complexities of my characters had tied the plot in knots. I was terrified I wouldn’t know how to move the story forward. I was in a state of suspense not so different from an obsessive crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. This momentum got me through another season of COVID.
On a spring morning a year ago, the novel unceremoniously threw me out. It was done. Finished with a lowercase “f.” To finish-finish, I needed to edit. And to edit I needed to see the book from the perspective of a reader. To do that, I needed time away. I had to let the book ferment, ruminate, hibernate, and, otherwise, take its distance.
After a month I told myself to start again. Editing is an artistic practice with its own share of surprises and wonder. Truth was, I missed the adrenaline rush of not knowing how the book would end even as I raced to get there. Truth was, I was afraid I had used up all my magic in the drafting.
All summer I nibbled at the edges of editing. It felt like drinking a soda gone flat. As the leaves turned yellow and then red, I got nervous. I was stuck. I didn’t have writer’s block. I had editor’s block.
So, when I got an idea—a silly idea—I jumped on it even though it had nothing to do with writing. I needed a dress for an event. The first big event since COVID. If I could find my creative muscle and flex it, I would prove to myself that I still had magic: I could finish my novel.
The idea was to make a dress from discarded bike tire inner tubes. I asked my partner to work with me. We called bike shops to ask if we could pick through their trash. I had my doubts as we cut, measured, and sewed rubber. The smell made my nose run. Neither of us had made clothing before. I couldn’t visualize how the black strips would become a three-dimensional shape. (After rewriting the end of my novel several times, I still couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the villain.) What did I know about rubber as a medium for art? (What did I know about ghosts?) We kept going, working after the kids went to bed and before they got up in the morning.
Finally, in the dawn light, I put on the dress, latching it in the back with a salvaged chainring. The rubber curled in an unintended form around my neck. In the mirror, I saw how the smallest fragments of a vision take on their own life.
Like flint, the dress set off dozens of conversations with strangers, a rare occurrence during the pandemic. People asked if we could make them clothing. I asked them about their COVID lives. We danced. It was an exchange of energy and ideas. I realized that magic comes in many forms.
I finished a complete edit of my novel in December. It took cracking open the plot, moving scenes, many long walks, and a lot of cutting. I’m still not sure about the demise of the villain.
I can smell the rubber of the dress when I open my closet. It’s ready, and I can’t wait for the next occasion to wear it. But, today, I am starting another round of edits. I’m confident and focused, ready for the next phase. To enter another unknown path, hopeful I will find my way to the end again.