On Sept. 13, I signed a contract for my next book: a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Like the original, my version is political, and heroine Fanny Price remains the consummate wallflower. Unlike the original, it will be set on U.S. soil and is less controversial for contemporary audiences because the main characters will not be biologically related.
At its core, “Mansfield Park” is a love story between Fanny and Edmund Bertram, and I promised my editor that the main characters in my novel would live happily ever after.
Every night for two months, I worked on the story. Twenty-thousand words into the manuscript, my characters were on their way to romance, sharing long glances and uninhibited smiles. I was pulling for them, writing “F + E = 4 Evah” in marginalia. I knew that, by 50,000 words they would be ready for their first kiss; at 100,000 words they’d be walking down the aisle.
Except that first kiss didn’t happen. My ability to write the story of a budding romance died before I even reached 25,000 words. EdAnny stalled. At the same time, so did my marriage.
On Nov. 15, I left my husband.
I couldn’t separate what was happening in my personal life from my writing. I couldn’t make love happen on the page when I couldn’t make it happen in reality. I couldn’t do much of anything but wake up, go to work, come home and crawl into bed. On nights I had the kids, I’d go through the bare minimum motions of suburban motherhood. I was mourning my previous life, and there wasn’t room for writing in my grief.
The end of my 15-year marriage was relatively amicable (no possessions tossed out on the lawn, no restraining orders). But as the year came to a close, I growled every time I walked by my laptop. In that machine was a vile love story. There were hopeful characters in there, and I had nothing hopeful to offer them. Let them languish in their almost-love, their hearts never risking breaking.
Weeks passed and, eventually, I stopped growling. At this point, the guilt set in. My deadline was close, and my manuscript was far from finished. In January, I finally mustered the courage to call my literary agent for advice.
“It happens,” she said, shrugging off the fact that I wouldn’t make my deadline. “I’ll make some calls.”
A couple hours later I got a text letting me know my spring deadline had been moved to the fall. I had a reprieve. Apparently I wasn’t the first romance author to go through a breakup or divorce while composing a novel, and, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be the last.
I spent the remainder of January living as if I weren’t a writer. I was still grieving the end of my marriage, but I was finding ways to live again. My evenings were filled with dinners with friends, longer gym workouts, and hiking in the Shenandoah on the weekends. I promised myself that I’d get back to writing in February.
But I did get back to dating.
I had convinced myself I was done with relationships for good. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of my friends: his dimples, his kindness, his passion for adventure. He offered to give me a hug on a particularly foul day, and I told him I hated hugs (a lie!) out of fear that touching him would push me over some imaginary ledge.
Because I was so set on not falling for him, one night I texted him, confessed my feelings, and begged him to talk me out of them. “Give me the friend-zone speech. Or the bad idea speech. Or the bad timing speech. Bring it. I need a formal rejection. I need zero hope.”
Instead of persuasion, he admitted to having a crush on me, too.
So now there’s a guy, a guy with whom I’ve been sharing long glances and uninhibited smiles. Who is slowly restoring my belief in romance.
I think that belief would have come back on its own, but it’s easier with him there to remind me.
I’ve tried to sit down a few times and add some words to Fanny’s story. Both times ended with a slammed laptop cover and fleeting promises to try again the next day. The sting of my failed marriage is still too close to the surface. My characters are young, and they don’t understand the risks they’ll take by giving part of their hearts to another.
I don’t yet know when the words will come back. I’m confident, though, that they will.