By Betty J. Cotter. A writer stuck on a story lets the words carry her to a new page.
In the summer of 2013, I was trying to write a novel called The Dictionary of Lost Words. The main character, Waller Lewis, is a laid-off newspaper reporter whose wife has left him. He washes up at a ramshackle house that he’s inherited from his mother that may or may not be haunted. While he makes the house livable, he sleeps in his camper and thumbs through old dictionaries, collecting unusual words.
It wasn’t going well, for Waller or for me.
Every morning I reported to my home office in what had once been my oldest son’s bedroom. I sat on the futon that Perry left behind and paged through my own dictionaries—the 1936 Webster’s I bought at a yard sale. The 1977 edition I won in high school. An unabridged one of my mother’s.
In a red notebook with an Emily Dickinson quote on the cover—“I dwell in possibility”—every day I jotted a few words that might interest Waller. For some reason, I started with the letter F (for failure?). Fulguration, “lightning,” was the first word I wrote down. I proceeded to L and then double-backed to I, making it only as far as “implexion,” “rare – the act of enfolding or entwining” before abandoning the enterprise.
Meanwhile, I had gotten Waller to the old house and peopled his new world with a crusty cast of characters—Claudia, an eccentric artist who sneaks into the house to paint; Carl, her father, who evicts Waller from a seasonal campground; a mysterious, unnamed woman he sees in an abandoned summer hotel who may be an old flame; Bonnie, his shrewish estranged wife, and Abbie, the ghost of the woman who once lived in his house.
Chapters piled up, complications ensued, but I became more confounded as time went on. Where was this story going? The novel was a jumble of words in need of a plot. Every day in my journal I posed more questions. Is Waller running from something? Does he have a secret? “Until I get a better handle on Waller’s predicament, the book will continue to founder,” I wrote on June 25.
It did not help that I had committed to a raft of freelance assignments to cover the gap between semesters. I hated every minute of it—the phone calls, the interviews, the fact-checking—but with no summer classes to teach, I needed the money.
At some point, my mind shifted away from Waller. I did not recognize this as it happened. I remember only an idle question, a noodling that seemed more personal than creative. But I think it started with the bulletin board.
When I moved into Perry’s room, I commandeered his brother’s corkboard and hung it on the wall. I began tacking up images—famous paintings, old advertisements, vintage family snapshots—a habit from my college days, when I posted beach photos to remind me of home. But this wasn’t homesickness so much as nostalgia.
Every time I got stuck on Waller, my eyes would stray from my computer monitor to the bulletin board, where I had posted a black-and-white graduation portrait of my aunt.
At 97, Dot moldered in an assisted-living facility in Virginia, her once brilliant mind lost to dementia. One of my mother’s three older sisters, she had led an incredible life. In 1957 she earned a Ph.D. in plant ecology, an unusual feat for a woman of that time, by doing field work in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dot popped in and out of our lives—every summer she showed up with a carousel of wildflower slides from her world travels; during the school year she sent us birthday checks and a subscription to National Geographic. Mostly, she and my mother corresponded.
What had her life been like? I wondered. How difficult was it for a woman to do field research in the 1950s—camping on Mt. Le Conte with a shotgun to ward off bears? Did she struggle to get hired as a professor and earn tenure? What had she given up along the way? At 53, I was the same age Dot had been when she finally married—a diffident 64-year-old widower she met at church.
At first, these were just questions about an interesting woman. But I could not think about Dot without confronting my mother’s relationship with her as a sister, our relationship with her as nieces. It was all implex—“enfolded, intricate, entangled, complicated”—and the more I dwelled on it, the more uncomfortable I grew. Why was it that we never visited Aunt Dot in Virginia, yet my cousins did so frequently? Why did my mother seem set apart from her more prosperous sisters, one of whom lived in Delaware, another in West Palm Beach? What did my mother think about being left behind in Rhode Island when her three sisters moved away?
“The thing is, you can’t expect to go digging around in the past—no matter how innocuous it seems—without your shovel hitting a box,” I wrote on July 6.
I was supposed to be working on another chapter about that hapless word-collector, Waller Lewis. But instead on July 6 I unleashed in a self-described “white heat” all of the resentments that I’d been carrying around for years surrounding my mother’s family, describing myself as “so mad I want to undo my bulletin board.” Then I proceeded to sketch out a story of “two sisters or three,” “each jealous of the other,” “betrayal,” “estrangement.” “One sister goes up to the mountains to study—and to escape,” I wrote. “And the other is climbing her own, metaphorical mountain.” Although the novel would evolve through many drafts in seven years, those central elements in what I came to refer to as the “sisters book” never wavered.
But like a spouse stuck in a bad marriage, I soldiered on far too long trying to salvage my relationship with Waller Lewis. I engaged in dialogues with him. “I told you from the start I was a failure,” he replied. “I’m even a failure at being a protagonist.” I listed five things to do with him, including “kill him” and “set him free and see where he goes.”
But I did not follow my own advice, at least not at first. Who wants to abandon months of planning, writing, revising? Deep down, I was cowed by the real novel I must write. It would be long, messy, and emotionally difficult. It would take me to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and to rural Florida. It would mean years of rewriting and 91 queries to find an agent. Even now, seven years later, that book—Sisters in Exile—is still not quite done.
I don’t know what happened to Waller Lewis. He’s back there, somewhere, dutifully contemplating words like “levant” (verb: “to decamp; to run away; to abscond”) and “katabasis” (from the Greek, “the retreat to the sea made by the Greek mercenaries … any similar retreat”). Maybe someday I will free him from his musty camper and ghostly, rundown farmhouse. But I doubt it.
The problems that bedeviled that novel in 2013 have not gone away—its aimless narrative, feckless male protagonist, air of hopelessness. I had just left the newspaper industry after three decades, a fraught parting. I was starting a new career as an adjunct college instructor of writing and English that often left me feeling incompetent. Onto Waller I unloaded my fears of failure; the story hit a wall because he was merely a surrogate for my frustrations.
Today, my aunt is back up on my bulletin board, keeping company with Gilbert Stuart’s famous, unfinished portrait of George Washington. Unlike The Dictionary of Lost Words and Stuart’s painting, the novel that Aunt Dot inspired will soon be complete. But there is something to be learned from Stuart’s best-known work. I wasn’t thinking about Waller when I tacked Washington up there a couple of weeks ago, but now the father of our country stares back at me soberly, as Waller might regard me from the page. What is he saying about what it means to be unfinished? The portrait is not done—only one quarter of the canvas has been painted, and George’s head seems to float on a blank cloud. But Stuart saw the painting as raw material (he made 130 copies that sold for $100 each, a princely sum in the early nineteenth century). The incomplete portrait became the iconic image of our first president, the one we see hanging in courthouses and town halls, on stamps and the dollar bill. Stuart painted five other presidents, as well as five lesser-known portraits of Washington. He was not troubled by this bit of unfinished business, and neither should we worry about ours. One way or another, all our artistic efforts bear fruit. Maybe they don’t turn out the way we expect. Maybe we are forced to walk away from them, to put down the pen or the brush, to set aside the half-molded lump of clay. But they are not failures – they are not even detours. They have led us to the creative present we are in right now, and in that moment lies all artistic possibility.
“Lost Words” is the winner of Critical Read’s 2020 The Creative Block Essay Contest.
Betty J. Cotter is the author of the novels 'Roberta's Woods' (Five Star, 2008) and 'The Winters,' which earned her a Fiction Fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts. The first chapter of her novel 'Moonshine Swamp' was selected for the premiere issue of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The first chapter of her novel 'Sisters in Exile' placed first in the Tallahassee Writers Association's Seven Hills Literary Contest and was published in its anthology in 2021. She holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.