Laura Nicole Diamond’s debut novel, Shelter Us, is just out, and Christina Baker Kline says she “couldn’t put this lovely book down.” Laura also edited the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, and is a civil rights lawyer who writes about parenting, family, and social justice on her blog, ConfessionsOfMotherhood.com. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two sons and foster daughter from Guatemala. Enjoy her post! – Meg
Laura Nicole Diamond: Don’t Be Afraid to Write about What You’re Afraid of
I never set out to become a writer, let alone a novelist. I was a lawyer. I did not have the creative writing gene. I kept my journal; that was all.
That is not to denigrate keeping a journal. My journal was a companion, a therapist, and a tool for making sense of myself and my world. It was soul exercise, keeping my mind nimble and open to observation and delight.
When I decided to leave my part-time law practice to stay home with my two-and-a-half-year-old son, my journal writing took another step. I was inspired by the hours I had spent laughing and crying while listening to NPR’s Bailey White’s tales about real characters in her small Georgia town, and by Anne LaMott’s cut-through-the-quagmire, saving-grace-for-uncertain-moms, Operating Instructions. Through these masters, I learned that writing honestly about one’s small personal world could be enough. As my family grew to include a second baby boy, the quotidian marvels and foibles of a domestic life were ample fodder. That’s what I wrote about. That’s what I published, in an anthology of stories about motherhood.
Then one day while writing, I started making stuff up. I was still writing about a mother of two little boys (and yes she turned out to be a former lawyer, and from my alma mater no less), but I roamed free from the facts. I sent her and her children to places I’d never been, and put words in their mouths they had never spoken. I called her Sarah. The matriarch.
To start, I didn’t have a story or plot, just characters to explore and an emotion to express. This Sarah was a young mother, struggling to fill an emptiness. She yearned for something, though I didn’t know what. As I wrote, my unconscious revealed Sarah’s defining experience: she had had an infant daughter who died.
Before I became a mother, I did not know how much I would worry. I was not ready for the abyss of anxiety I would carry, fueled by warnings to cut grapes in half, cover electric sockets, lock toilet lids, and learn CPR. An entire industry flourished by fanning these fears. I followed this new detail about Sarah and wrote into the shadow of my fear, expressed as Sarah’s grief and her struggle to be present to her two living children. Like Sarah, I have goodbye rituals: a kiss and “I love you” with each parting, just in case. It’s difficult to accept the truth that anything could happen to anyone at any time. As Sarah wistfully expresses, “We can’t have so little control.”
Writing from emotion, however, was not enough to sustain a novel. Something had to happen. But as someone who had only written true stories – transcribing life to the page – I had no idea how to conjure a new story.
So I did the only thing I could do when faced with a blank screen: let my unconscious have at it. I had met young homeless mothers through a volunteer experience, and had been floored by their tales of surviving with their babies without the security of home or family. This would be who Sarah would meet, would want to save, and in so doing perhaps save herself. I spent months figuring out the how’s and where’s of their connection. How would they meet? What would they say to each other? How would Sarah’s family react? I was grateful to have questions that needed answers, which would become the chapters of Sarah’s unfolding story. I borrowed details from life to create something new.
One of the most difficult parts of writing the first draft was the decision that Sarah needed to go to dark places to keep the reader’s interest. Until then, she was my alter ego. The moment she began making regrettable choices that I wouldn’t have made was the moment the novel took on its own life.
I completed the first draft over the course of 16 months, writing once a week for an hour. It took five more years of revising, submitting, being rejected, setting aside, picking back up, revising again, and submitting again, to become the novel it is. I lost count of how many revisions I did, but a dozen or more sounds right.
Looking back, I wrote Shelter Us to express the wild emotional ride of being a mother, the deep senses of awe and humility, joy and terror. Writing about Sarah’s emotional journey taught me what Sarah, too, ultimately had to learn: to confront the knowledge that life is fragile and fleeting, to resist the temptation to coil away from life’s inevitable heartache, and to embrace life all the more. – Laura