The Weight of Creative Work

Henrik Ibsen, Searching for Nora, Norwegian History, Norwegian Immigration
Henrik Ibsen, Searching for Nora, Norwegian History, Norwegian Immigration

Desk clutter from Searching for Nora.

Whenever I give a book talk about my novel Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House, eventually every group gets to the important question: Are you working on your next book? If so, when will it be out?

Some people ask if I’m writing a sequel to Searching for Nora, and – if so – can I share some tantalizing hints about what happens to Solvi and Rikka and Ivar and Bobby? Surely they find each other in America, they say, looking at me hopefully, as if this suggestion might prime my creative pumps. Others ask if I’m working on some other book, perhaps another sequel to another well-known literary work. One woman even asked if I was working on another memoir, referring to the divorce and remarriage memoirs I wrote before Nora. It could be a memoir about writing a novel, she said. I smiled at her; there would be a lot of sitting in front of a computer, I said. Well, she said, you would have to make it interesting. Ah, and there is the rub.

When I go home and face my desk, I have to honestly say that, no, I am not currently working on a new book. I still have most of my Nora reference books gathered about; the same clutter I’ve been sitting with for the ten years it took me to write Nora. And just looking at it makes me wonder if I can summon again the creative fire that brought Nora and Solvi to life again.

One thing I learned along my Nora journey, was that producing a work of significant scope and depth takes years, and it takes a lot of mental effort. When I wasn’t at my desk researching or writing, I spent most waking hours thinking about my book – running the plot through my head like a movie, visualizing Nora’s world, tinkering with the characters and structure. I still have Nora and Solvi in my head and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to evict them. Whoever takes over that apartment someday will have big shoes to fill.

When you invest years of sweat and care and lifeblood into a creative work, it takes on weight. I had some frustrations writing and getting Nora published, and there were countless drafts and many versions. Friends and family often wondered why I kept working and pushing and hoping. All I could say was: “I can’t give up on Nora.” She (and Solvi and all the other characters) were too real; I could not abandon them. I wanted desperately to make them real for others, for the readers I knew would grow to appreciate them and want to know what happened next. I felt responsible for the work I had created and needed to find a way to let it live.

So, no, I cannot claim to be working on my next book. I can say, however, that various ideas are floating through my head. I trust that one of them will start to put down roots, fix itself to a part of me that wants a voice, has something to say. I’m trying to let this fallow space breathe, holding it gently. I don’t know what will grow there next, but there are seeds in the soil. Something is sure to sprout.

By Wendy Swallow, Sept. 1, 2020

About Wendy Swallow

Wendy Swallow writes about women’s challenges, now and in the tender past. She is the author of Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce and The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. Swallow became fascinated with Henrik Ibsen’s iconic character Nora Helmer after she left her first husband. Searching for Nora is her first historical novel.

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