Unlike the turbulent 1970s she lives in, Polly Wainwright is determined to be calm, competent, and professional. She’s got a boyfriend making a name for himself as a war correspondent in Vietnam, close friends, and a steady (albeit boring) job in the Illustration Department at Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Chicago location. But once upon a time Polly also had dreams, and, when her steady (and boring) life begins to implode, she finds herself returning to what has gone unfulfilled in Chicago photographer and novelist Lynn Sloan’s vivid, elegant novel Midstream (Fomite Press).
Polly is herself a fascinating heroine, sometimes deeply frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always intensely believable. At one point, as her own life starts to unravel and her boss’s
privileged niece starts her own ascent in England, Polly has the sort of moment many of us have probably shared, as Sloan writes: “She, Polly Wainwright from Peoria, Illinois, would make a contribution to the world. She, Polly, would preserve the wisdom of the elders that was slipping away in the film world. She, Polly Wainwright, would make a difference. She, Polly, would not be just like everyone else.” That she, like almost everyone else (except the feminists and the anti-war protestors), is slipping into averageness and obscurity, facing insecurity and low pay, makes her desperation more touching—and, in truth, sets the stage for her own forward propulsion.
Writing a novel takes time. Between writing the opening line on the first draft to typing END on its last page, months and usually years have elapsed. For most of us writers, planners or pants-ers and those in between, the first draft involves false starts, trial and error, writing and rejecting. When we type END, we know it’s not the real end. Revision lies ahead.
Getting to revision is Reason #1 to hurry toward that first END. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, you will have come to the end of your exploring and arrive from where you started “and know it for the first time.” You can look at the whole and see it in a new light: re-vision. You may decide to make huge changes, change the point of view, change your major characters, change voice, add or subtract events and their consequences, or you might make only small adjustments. In revision, your novel grows into itself.Reason #2—Taking a very long time to complete your first draft means that the world of your novel ages. If you started out writing a contemporary novel, it will have become historical fiction. Maybe not by the official definition of “historical fiction,” which is usually “set in a period of time fifty years before the present moment,” but you may have to explain what didn’t needed explaining before.
This happened to me. I wrote my first novel right before the millennium, landed an agent, who sent out my manuscript in late August 2001. Two weeks later, from her high rise office, she watched the planes hit the Twin Towers. She quit the agenting business, left NYC, and I put my manuscript in a box. The country was depressed. I was depressed. A dozen years later, I retrieved the manuscript, liked the story and the characters, but realized that some elements specific to that era made no sense: cellphones were uncommon, email was for business only, texting didn’t exist; little social media; the persistent Doomsday thinking; the Y2K worries, including all computers going haywire and planes falling from the skies. All this had to be fixed in my aged manuscript. After I updated, I found a publisher, Fomite. Principles of Navigation came out in 2015.
Reason #3—If you take a very long time to complete your first draft, the you who is looking back at what you wrote isn’t the same you who wrote that first sentence. The world and your culture have changed.
If you started your novel on January 1, 2020—this isn’t that long ago in novel-writing time—here are some of the things that have changed in the world: the pandemic and worldwide shutdown, the political landscape in the US, inflation, war in Ukraine, tensions in Asia, climate hardships on every continent. What happens in the world around can change your attitude, your mood, your hopes and fears. And there’s the changes that you live through in your personal life. Inevitably, things happen that will change you. And so does the process of writing. The words you write and reject, the ones you choose to save, these shape you. When you complete your first draft, you’ve forged a narrative that didn’t exist before. You gained insights. The you who began didn’t know as much as you do after you conclude. You’ve become a more experienced writer.
I have a friend who’s been working on a novel for twenty-five years. Her novel is set at the turn of the last century. Right from the start she had historical distance and she’d done her research. Her focus was on the young bride. After a while, my friend decided she needed to know more about the groom and shifted her focus to him and his aspirations. Which led her to his father’s story, which was complicated and needed expanding. Maybe the novel should begin with the groom’s father. But wanting to get back to the bride—by now, more than fifteen years had gone by in real life—my friend wrote a scene involving the bride’s maid that interested her. Who is this maid? Which led to … . Maybe the novel should have multiple narratives and chronicle the social milieu of the era. Writing this over twenty-five years has made my friend happy—being in the grip of your story is wonderful—but she is nowhere near completing her first draft. This brings me to Reason #4.
Reason #4—If you want your work to be published, you have to finish it. Begin by completing that first draft.
In Lynn Sloan’s luminous novel Midstream, a woman’s comfortable, enviable life is upended.
In 1974, Polly is thirty-four. The US simmers in discontent. Vietnam protests and feminists who demand equal rights and pay are disturbing reminders that all is not as it should be. Though she feels suffocated by the doublespeak, false enthusiasm, and exhausting jockeying for positions that she encounters in her career, Polly clings to the security of her job as a picture editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica. She is unwilling to risk her reliable paycheck, comfy Chicago apartment, and much admired, often absent war correspondent boyfriend by throwing herself into the fray. Then a mysterious letter arrives, reminding Polly of who she once was: a fearless woman with wide dreams. She is forced to question who she is and what she really wants. Though she dusts off her shelved hopes, she realizes that being true to herself may require letting go of her comforts to follow the risky road that’s opening before her.
The sensitive prose makes both the characters and the worlds that they inhabit shimmer with life. The language is clear and crisp as it focuses on the concerns of creative, twenty-first-century women trying to make it in corporate environments that are dominated by men. Rapid-re conversations pair with colorful descriptions to invigorate Polly’s world: there are observations of a technicolor sky “dotted with whipped cream clouds” and of “eyes [a] disturbing … eerie light blue, too light, like glass, the whites around the irises marbled with red veins.” Midstream is a sophisticated, insightful novel in which a woman on the cusp of becoming a cog in the corporate world awakens, finding the courage to reclaim her lost dreams. Reviewed by Kristine Morris July / August 2022
For Off Campus Writers Workshop’s a new online column devoted to writing: ABOUT WRITE, I was delighted to interview Fred Shafer, the esteemed writing teacher and editor, who has opened each new OCWW season for thirty-six years.
Can writing be taught? This is a trick question. The subject is actively debated, but obviously, you believe it can.
Yes, having seen countless people give themselves to the process over the years, I’m convinced that fiction writing can be taught. Does that mean that everyone is capable of learning to write fiction? I’d like to think so, but I’ve learned that there are some qualities that the people who form a commitment to writing fiction tend to share: an enjoyment of reading short stories and novels, a deep interest in other people’s lives, and a willingness to learn. Apart from those qualities, I haven’t found that one background is more conducive than others to writing fiction. I’ve had conversations with other teachers and writers about whether it’s possible to recognize, as early as the first day of class, which students will stay committed to fiction writing, and my answer is no. Each person needs to find her own level of comfort with the process, and because there are so many differences between fiction and other forms of writing, it may take time. Rarely is everyone in a class or workshop learning at the same pace, and to draw conclusions from the pace set by a new writer can be very misleading.
Lynn Sloan’s Midstream is a novel that captures what it means to be woman in America agnostic of time or place.
Polly Wainwright works as a picture editor for Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). It’s 1974. A once aspiring filmmaker, Polly has settled for a steady job in Chicago while her boyfriend is off across the seas covering the end of The Vietnam War. Polly, though, has responsibilities. She has a mother to take care of, a paycheck she needs to collect to keep afloat. She doesn’t have the time or space to galivant into the jungle, to pursue her dreams, like all the men in her life.
We see a forest through what looks like a
cracked mirror on the cover of Lynn Sloan’s
new novel, Midstream.
Polly’s life is thrown askew when she finds out the project she’s working on at EB will fold at the end of the year and almost the entire staff will be laid off. There’s that, and her relationship with her boyfriend is slowly sinking. And on top of that, Polly is faced with her own mortality when her best friend falls seriously ill. Oh, and a mysterious package arrives.
All of this sets Polly on a different life course she always dreamed of, but never dared to pursue.
Polly takes us back to 1962 when she worked as an assistant on a film project, showing us all the ways things went wrong and why she ended up where she did. But Polly’s past creeps up on her in more than just memories as she is reunited with old acquaintances to uncover a potential mystery.
Midstream is a novel about a woman who is midstream in an unsatisfying life, when she decides to turn it around. Polly makes the decisive effort to forget about, or ignore as best she can, the sexist tropes that have kept her down and to subtly fight against them.
Sloan reveals in a number of ways how being a woman forces us into boxes, creates untrue narratives that are perpetuated (even by other women), and gives us hope that we can break free. With the overturning of Roe v Wade and the rapid descent back into a time of even greater oppression and subjugation for women, Midstream is a very welcome novel.
Polly Wainwright has drifted through her twenties and early thirties. She once dreamed of making movies but has settled for a job as a picture editor. She moved from her life in New York back to Chicago when her mother was injured in a car crash and just stayed there. Polly has a partner but he is a war correspondent and has been overseas covering the end of the Vietnam War and his letters are becoming more and more impersonal. She has an apartment she likes and a routine that just a bit too comfortable.
When Polly’s world falls apart. Her steady job is suddenly in jeopardy. Her best friend is facing a serious illness. She realizes that her boyfriend may not come home and resume their relationship. What will she do with the rest of her life which is, she realizes, her responsibility to carve into what she wants?
This is a lovely book. I felt like Polly was one of my best friends as I could relate so totally with her dreams and struggles. When I was her age, I knew women who just drifted into a life that fit other people’s expectations of what women should do and I knew women who took charge and made their lives what they had always wanted it to be. The book was set in 1974 and this was the time when the feminist movement was strong and women thought about whether the way things had always been for women was going to be enough for them. Polly is a character that will remain with readers long after the last page is read. This book is recommended for readers of women’s fiction.
I’m grateful to Booksie who reads so many good books, grateful that she enjoyed my novel MIDSTREAM, and shared her review with her many followers.
I’m thrilled to hold in my own hands an ARC of my new novel Midstream, which will be published by Fomite Press on August 23, 2022. Years of imagining, loose drafting, more careful writing, tossing out pages, rewriting, re-thinking, moving sections around, changing my mind, moving them back, asking my patience writer-friends to read and comment, rewriting, pulling things together, checking for typos, submitting to my publisher, waiting, nail-biting, cheering when my manuscript with a different name, a terrible name, was accepted, trying out other names, discovering Midstream. Now all this comes together in a volume with 244 beautifully printed pages. I really am thrilled.
Is this just me? Six months after reading a book, I seldom remember the characters’ names and only the most rudimentary elements of plot. Even with books I’ve loved! Character and plot are the foundations of fiction. That’s what writers are taught in classes, workshops, how-to books, articles, and websites. You need engaging characters and a story with tension, conflict, drama, high stakes. Voice, setting, imagery, language are important elements, too, but interesting characters and absorbing plots are vital. But if character and plot fade away, then what qualities create the powerful, resonant fiction that keeps its hold on us long afterward?
Lark Sparrow Press, the fine book press operated by Craig Jobson, bookmaker, designer, and graphic artist, launched this hand-made, limited edition of Fortune Cookies, which includes seven of my very short stories, each involving a fortune cookie fortune. I’m thrilled have my stories appear in such a beautiful art book with bamboo covers, open-spine binding, letterpress printing, tipped in fortune cookie fortunes, embossed art work, and hand-tinted illustrations.
Craig began working on this project a couple of years ago. Throughout that time, he allowed me to make suggestions, read proofs, and occasionally assist him on the press. What an experience–it was like assisting Gutenberg.
Lynn Sloan:Patty, I’ve enjoyed and admired your work for years, so it’s a real treat to have a chance to ask you about your writing and your new story collection, Responsible Adults. Great title. It’s the title of one of your stories, but what it suggests, a bad situation where a sound, responsible adult is needed, can be applied broadly to this entire collection. Reversing those two words of the title to adults responsible also works. In these stories, it is usually the adult, the one in charge, who is responsible for the harm done. When in the process of pulling together this collection did you choose this title?
Patricia Ann McNair: Hello, Lynn, and what a pleasure to talk with you as well! I think you are exactly right that these stories and the situations the characters find themselves in ache for the intervention of a responsible adult. That was something that became clear to me as I started to put these pieces into a binder to see what they might look like as a collection. I hadn’t finished the story that the title Responsible Adults comes from quite yet, and in a way that has never happened before, the title for the collection came to me before I had a story for it. I just liked the sound of it, Responsible Adults, especially as I thought of it in regards to the relationships in the stories. “Who is responsible here” can have a different meaning from “Who is responsible for this?” One implies a sort of blame, an insinuation of guilt, the other assumes that someone is in charge. Each of these ideas speaks to my stories in some way, so, yeah, the title stuck with me. And then I had to find one of my unfinished, untitled stories that might make use of those two words as well. A sort of backward approach for me; I usually like to find a title that has surfaced organically in a story and can do double duty for the collection. But this time the title asserted itself into and onto the book.