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Hitting the Road: How to Find the Courage to Try New Writing Paths

Award-winning author Marina Budhos shares how she had to have the courage to try a new writing path to get to the story she wanted to tell, instead of pushing for the story she originally thought she wanted to tell.

I was lucky.

I had a two-book deal for my next young adult novels, with two editors I adored.

The publisher bought my new novel on a concept and a title—“Sanctuary”—about an asylum-seeking Pakistani family who takes sanctuary in a synagogue in New Jersey. It was, as I saw it, a kind of modern Anne Frank story, set against the draconian, cruel Trump era.

(How I Stopped Sabotaging My Writing Goals.)

The novel idea was clear as could be, drawing from two inspirations. One day, while riding the subway I had a vision of a teenage girl named Rania, an aspiring poet, whose family were fleeing political persecution. The other inspiration was a local synagogue that had decided to be a sanctuary: I was seized with an image of Rania and her family arriving at the space they were creating.

Soon I was lucky again, as I received a fellowship to a residency in southwest France; my very first night, along with another fellow, we stumbled upon a group of people sitting outside, at a large table, under a grape arbor, where an older gentleman was telling the story of his life. Later I learned this was an albergue—a hostel, a sanctuary providing pilgrims who were walking the Camino de Santiago. It was a magical night—a sign that I must write a novel about sanctuary.

Hitting the Road: How to Find the Courage to Try New Writing Paths

And yet when I sat down in my beautiful studio, blue shutters slanted open to the honey-colored fields, I could barely eke out the paragraphs. Every morning I woke to the tap-tap of walking sticks on cobblestone—pilgrims marching past—and tried again. None of that marvelous spirit that I’d felt the first night translated into inspired, fluid writing.

Returned to the U.S., I forged on, doing research and plumping out the story. I was finishing up a research interview the day that Covid restrictions in the US were starting. The world shut down. Our own homes became sanctuary spaces, as we watched the horror that broadcast through the news each night. All of us, like my characters, were in captivity, suspended, frightened, staying put.

During the spring of 2020, I wrote my way through to the end, emerging by early summer with a draft. When my editors got back to me, they were lukewarm, couching their response in encouraging phrases—This is an earlier stage than we’ve seen before. Bring in more of her old life in New York City. They gave cheerful notes, trying to rescue what was promising. In my heart, I knew I could not complete this novel as is.

There is no doubt I could have deepened and tightened, found a way to write an evocative novel that captured the helpless experience of sanctuary. But I had to face the truth: I was bored. I was treading in a tone, a territory, that reminded me of an earlier novel I’d published. Most of all I didn’t want to write a novel that replicated the muted passivity of that period. I wanted out.

Just as I experienced the entrapment of Covid, keeping Rania in sanctuary for the entire book gave her little external choice. Her parents’ suffering swamped her narrative. I needed to break Rania out of her sanctuary prison, which had muffled and cloaked the energy of this story.

I needed to be unafraid to grab what was good—Rania herself—and bolt elsewhere. So I decided to write a road novel, where the quest for safety, for sanctuary, would drive the book.

I plucked my main character and set her in motion. In a way, I reversed the novel’s formulation: I ended where I originally began. At the center of my new version was 17-year-old-Rania, whose mother is taken away in a sudden ICE raid. Her journalist father had disappeared many years before, under mysterious circumstances. Rania is left to survive, take care of her little brother, and find out the truth of what had really happened to her family.

Check out Marina Budhos' novel We Are All We Have:

We Are All We Have, by Marina Budhos

IndieBound | Amazon

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Perhaps another novel does exist out there, which would have been the culmination of my first efforts—a meditative, quiet book. But it was ultimately not the one I wanted to publish. I wanted a book that had a bit more hard-edged impact; which captured the frantic sense of desperation during that period in history; a novel inspired by that girl on the subway, shimmering before me; Rania’s fierce and blind energy at the center.

So often, as writers, we keep pressing ourselves against a wall. We know we’re stuck. We know this direction isn’t working. But stubbornness and pride keep us pushing in the same direction. In backing away from our original plan, we must have faith that the essence is there, but some radical departure must take place.

For this book, I learned how important it is to be coldly frank and diagnostic with one’s self, once a manuscript has cooled on the page. One can always fiddle at the edges, improve. But if the central drive, the core, is somehow muted, a more radical approach at revision—really re-envisioning—is what’s needed.

It’s like being an architect, staring at a cramped and dull house, and saying, We’re going to gut this down to the studs and build up again. That’s the kind of bracing clarity I gained from what I thought should have been an easy, lucky novel.

In fact, once I changed course, I did feel that lucky energy. Setting it as a road novel, the book seemed to write itself. The safety brake was let go, and I propelled forward—as my character did—grabbing the same thematic threads of sanctuary and survival, even the backstory of political journalism—but allowing me, the writer, to race forward and be surprised, not sure what lay around the next bend. Sanctuary became something she arrives at; the space where Rania allowed herself to be fully herself, vulnerable, remembering many of her memories that had been suppressed in her flight and fear.

As writers, we often pursue a platonic ideal of the novel that was meant to be. But a novel is not an amalgam of all of what we’ve gathered, all we believe we are meant to do. It is not fatefully drawn in the stars. It’s a set of choices.

I made a choice not to explore the simmering resentments and suffering of a family living in a sanctuary space. I went in another direction, one that gave me the vibration of a humming road, of a family mystery, and girl persisting after her own truths. 

Willaims, 11:26

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