Yesterday when I was teaching “The Story of the Eldest Princess” by A.S. Byatt, my favorite female writer, I glanced down at the page and randomly chose a quote:
“You are a born storyteller,” said the old lady. “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.”
My heart skipped as I realized the choice was no accident. I wasn’t sure why I had such a visceral reaction, but after class, as I spoke with two students about the story and about the meaning it had for them, I realized why her words created such a provocative response.
I was caught in a story and had been for some time; I was losing sleep over the story; I needed to change the course I took.
I took action, and within hours I had changed that story. Thank you, Antonia Susan Byatt, for helping me to find the right path. Isn’t this what all good stories and good storytellers do?
Afterwards, my thoughts drifted to Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance, a book which continues to change my life as I revisit it. When I first read it, I was still a graduate student, and the story of two literature lovers spending hours delving into archival materials to uncover the answer to a literary mystery reinforced my choice of academic discipline, making me even more excited to spend hours in the library myself reading through microfilm for evidence to support my assertions. When I read it years later as a new professor, it calmed me as I embarked on a new career path. Somehow reading of a fictional character’s feelings of insecurity about his position in academe made me feel less alone. And when I read it again to write and then publish an essay analyzing the poetry in the film adaptation for my dear friend Marlisa’s book on verse and voice in film, I felt again the stirring of its stories in my limbs and in my heart. I took my first vacation with my Becky, my eldest cat at the time, and in a beautiful restored Victorian in the room that had once sat atop a country pub, Becky slept with her paw across the cover of the book as I took notes for the essay I was writing. Byatt’s most famous work was (and is) such a pivotal work for me because it is about literature, mystery, intrigue, and romance—all things I love in different doses, but rarely does a writer place such features in tandem and do it with such grace and style.
And as I read through my favorite quotes from Possession, or even heard the actors from the film adaptation speaking into my ears, I realized how deeply Byatt’s words resonate with me. One quote reverberates:
“I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”
In the book and film, these words are written by Cristabel LaMotte to her soon-to-be lover Randolph
Henry Ash. The context is of forbidden love and Cristabel’s struggle, as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Victorian, to walk the line of attraction and repulsion when Ash ignites feelings in her she did not know she possessed. She wants to stand in the midst of their inferno, but she knows it threatens to destroy her.
For me, these words carry multiple meanings. Certainly Cristabel’s connotation carries weight, as I understand all too well how our feelings for another person can prove to be invigorating yet destructive. But also, I am reminded of my relationship to work and the way that a project can both entice and repel me: the repulsion coming not from resistance to the work itself, but from resistance to the recognition that we all pay a price for our obsessions.
One of the many stories I’ve felt caught in of late is my planned trilogy, The Transformation Trilogy. Two novels of three are written. The third is loosely plotted with a few key chapters completed. The story I’ve told myself is that when I finish all of it—not just the drafts but the final versions—something magical will happen. Something great will lift from my shoulders. Something extraordinary will occur. Perhaps I will become semi-known. Perhaps someone will read the work and offer me some marvelous side job. Perhaps someone will fall in love with me because I wrote it. Perhaps my entire life will change in unheard of, spectacular ways.
With those hopes and dreams come pressures. The trilogy must be good. No. It must be phenomenal. It must be better than anything I’ve ever written. Furthermore, I have to decide now the way it ends, because it has come to the point where I can’t write any more of Ariadne’s story if I don’t know its conclusion.
For 5 years now I’ve thought about how it ends, and I hate to say it, but I still don’t know for sure. As I change, my protagonist changes. Her story, which is mine and yet isn’t mine—which comes from life but which is also life reimagined—keeps changing. How ironic that I’ve called it the transformation trilogy, then. But that’s just it. There must be a way to fix the story in place, or else the novels are never finished. If they aren’t finished, I can’t publish them.
I read once that quantum theory suggests that for every decision we make, all the decisions we don’t make occur in parallel universes. So at times it feels like my protagonist’s story isn’t just the one she lives but all the others she doesn’t live. Whatever sits on the typed page is but one path, but there are endless other paths in my head or on unfinished drafts.
I tried to solve the puzzle weeks ago. I tried to write the last chapter of the whole darn thing. And I did. I walked out of my office trembling, my heart fluttering. I’ve done it! I’ve finished the last chapter! I know how it ends!
But something wasn’t right, and two days later I had to acknowledge that my heart was racing in an effort to tell me that I had the ending all wrong. Now I’ve read it over and it’s just another wasted draft, a story path that spins off into the universe that does not work for what came before it. The bottom line is that I was trying to finish it before I was ready because the burden of five years of unfinished business feels oppressive.
The desire to walk into that fire is so pervasive—the fire is the final book—the culmination of all those perhapses possibly coming into fruition. But along with that fire comes the potential for destruction—if I try to stay in that place and fix her story before it is time, like someone tacking a butterfly’s wings to a mount, I will destroy it.
“No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”
For so long now I have obsessed over Ariadne’s story and the undertaking has given me such focus, such insight. It has been cathartic. It has been therapeutic. It has boosted my creativity to astounding heights. It has been the voice in the darkness when I can’t sleep or the whisper in my ear when I’m driving. It has given me life.
But Ariadne’s story has also become a maze itself. How ironic that I helped her escape the labyrinth only for her writer to find herself trapped inside one.
Ariadne’s writer is caught in a story and she has to have the sense to get out.
As I see it, there are three ways that Ariadne’s story can end: she can choose to live the rest of her days in solitude. Or she can choose to live the rest of her days in love with her best friend. Or she can choose to live the rest of her days in love with someone new whom I haven’t introduced her to yet.
These are her options. This is why the book is called Ariadne’s Choice.
Only she hasn’t chosen yet.
I think now of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who says “the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.” As Ariadne’s writer, the effort it takes to balance all three choices and yet not choose one of the three is getting to be greater than the relief I glean from writing about her story.
Perhaps, then, the way to free myself from being caught in a story is to walk away from her story. As my co-editor Eileen suggested when I related my angst, I could put the manuscripts and notes in a pretty box in my attic, for later, for posterity. In Possession, Cristabel, too, wrapped up the letter correspondence between her and Randolph, tying it with a pretty silk ribbon, hiding it inside a secret panel in a doll carriage. I don’t know if the act helped Cristabel escape from her story, but I imagine she hoped it would. Right now, I wonder if a similar act would help me escape Ariadne’s labyrinth.
I set out to write Ariadne’s story as a form of therapy for myself to help me overcome betrayal and loss. I thought that the only way to get past my past was to complete the trilogy. And yet…I have just noticed something peculiar. When I listed Ariadne’s choices above, there was one more choice available to her: to choose to live the rest of her days with her love from the past. And yet, it never occurred to me instinctively to write that choice down.
Maybe the fire consumes more than fuels me now because the project has done its deed. It has brought a form of salvation to me, even in its unfinished state.
Perhaps Ariadne needs to have the freedom to live a few more years before she can get a fix on her path, and for right now, she needs to be free to fly where she might, her wings unfixed and all possibilities open to her simultaneously.
There are things about which I am extremely passionate—literature, writing, and the belief in true love. These appetites drive me and sustain me. But there are times when the quest for my cravings becomes so seductive that I find myself walking into that conflagration, the fire rising upwards into the dark, the brilliance of the flames illuminating the world around me. But eventually, I am weakened as the flames consume every bit of my oxygen. My strength sapped, I feel trapped inside my obsession, losing sleep, distracted, tense and nervous. Everything in the world around me loses color, lines become blurred, and I am unable to be part of everything as I once was.
For a time, Cristabel was caught inside an obsession; transfixed with the object of her desire, she could not escape the fire even as she knew the flames would eat her alive. What Cristabel did not realize was that another path lay open to her. In other words, she may have been part of the spark that lit the fire, but she could have chosen to turn her back to it and walk away.
My novels represent a fire I set, fueled by the spark of events of the past, the flames fanned by inspirations of the present. But now that the fire is roaring, perhaps it does not need me to tend it. If the fire is meant to burn, if Ariadne’s story is meant to live, it will burn until I am ready to visit it again, which will occur when I know definitively how her story ends. If it is meant to die, the flames will dissipate, the coals will cool, and what had been will turn to ash.
Meanwhile, a box with hundreds of pages bound with silken ribbon will collect dust somewhere in an attic, for some stories gain wisdom with age.