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Racing an Ant; How Long a Book Can Take

In the fall of 2018, I started to write a book about ants.

Wait. No. That’s not true.

In the summer of 2017, I started to draft this book about ants.

Nope. Not there yet. Imagine my feet stepping behind me as I play back like a VCR tape. (If you don’t know what a VCR tape is, know that you’re in the bloom of youth.)

In the spring of 2015, I began a project about a boy who gets invited to join an ant colony.

There. That’s the right time. We’ll put a pin in those three dates: August 2018. June 2017. May 2015. I’m going to jump to August 2018 because it’s important. Don’t worry, we’ll be kind and rewind later.

In August of 2018, I visited my friend and old colleague at the middle school I taught at for four years. My friend is as different from me as they come. He’s a super genius science teacher with a PhD in entomology (the study of insects.) I was a wacky theatre teacher who made the kids freeze in awkward positions on stage and sing songs about sunburns peeling like bananas. Somehow, we were both well-respected by the students. I’m not sure how I fooled them into taking me seriously.

By the time August 2018 rolled around, I was no longer colleagues with my entomologist friend. I had moved to Austin, TX two years prior and he had continued teaching in Albuquerque. But I had just moved home! And I was an author now! And I really, really, wanted to get on with this project itching at my fingertips about ant colonies and a kid who falls headfirst into one ala Alice in Wonderland.

I visited my friend to borrow his giant textbook on ants written by world-renowned ant expert E.O. Wilson. But my friend gifted me something extra before I left…

A queen ant.

Let me be more specific. This was not a picture of an ant. Not an ant pinned to a board. He handed me a real, live queen ant in her own Plexiglas tower.

I did not want this ant for several reasons.

· One, she was going to topple out of the tower on the ride home and bite me, I just knew it.

· Two, her carefully guarded eggs were going to hatch and the tiny babies would escape and burrow in my ear while I was sleeping.

· Three, what if her colony grew exponentially and suddenly I had a huge ant infestation of my own doing?

But really, the reason I most feared about adopting a lone queen ant was less to do with bugs moving into my home and more to do with existential dread.

“What if she dies?” I asked my friend.

I had sprayed and stepped on ants many times, but I had never watched one slowly wither away, wasting in hunger or thirst, or even loneliness. The idea of holding this queen captive worried me. It felt almost cruel.

But my friend wasn’t so concerned. With a sad smile, he told me most queen ants die before their eggs hatch anyway. They can’t feed themselves for months while they wait, that’s the way they’re built. Whatever happened to this queen in the tower would happen to her if she were left outdoors. In fact, removing her from predators was her best chance, he insisted.

And so I took her home.

Working on a story while watching a nest of eggs is an interesting thing. Morning after morning, I peered into the queen’s tower to see if my ant had company. I continued working on my draft, eyes flitting to the nest every so often. Soon, I had gotten myself worked up into a strange sort of contest. What will be born first, I wondered: my story or her children?

The fall turned to a slow slog, for both me and my queen ant. After completing an unsatisfactory draft, I found myself starting at the ant book’s synopsis again, reshaping the bones with the hope this story could one day stand on its own. At the same time, I found the queen alone day after day. She paced in her tower much like Rapunzel. I gave her tiny twigs and slivers of bark, which she carried and arranged into a nest. Her eggs sat and waited.

In the middle of winter, I finally had an approved synopsis for my book, as well as a new plan: it would now be a graphic novel script! Meanwhile, my queen ant hurried up and down the three levels of her hideaway. Must not be long, I thought, for either of us.

Last week, in the early days of March 2019, I finished my revision of a completed script for my ant book. I basked in glory for a day. Then I reread it.

It still wasn’t done.

Last week, as I was revising my final pages, something else happened. I woke up one morning and crept to my office with a hot cup of tea. I peered into the Plexiglas tower. The queen’s eggs were gone. The queen herself had curled into an odd sort of shape in the bottom level. I had never seen her unmoving before. I waited for days for something to change, but the tower remained still. The queen had died.

What a silly thing, in some respects, to mourn the loss of a creature so small and relatively common. But something comes with shining the light on a life that is so often hidden: Empathy. Compassion. Sisterhood.

Like the origins of an ant colony, the origins of a book can be long, sordid, and often hidden.

I started to write the book I call ANTVENTURE in 2015 as a rebound novel after giving up my seven-year affair with my first manuscript, KALEIDOSCOPE. But ANTVENTURE was too good to be a rebound. It was too juicy an idea for that moment. I tucked the story away and continued on. While I was querying my second completed project, DOPPELGÄNGER, I picked up my ant book again in 2017. I rewrote the first five chapters. I fell deeper in love with the two main characters. But in a way, I was rebounding again. I was still struggling over DOPPELGÄNGER, hoping it would be my debut. I squeezed my ant story tight and used it as a crutch to keep going. It deserved more than that. So I packed it carefully away once more and soldiered on still, until 2018 when I decided this time, this time, I was going to finish what I started. I was going to see it through.

When I looked into the Plexiglas tower last week and shed tears over the lost queen, I wondered if my ant book would too someday meet this fate. It would not be an uncommon end. So many promising and well-executed manuscripts are written that for one reason or another never end up on a bookshelf. The odds are against us writers in that way. Every story we scribble and reorganize and streamline and pitch won’t have a guarantee of flourishing and multiplying into thousands of copies in reader’s hands.

Most queen ants won’t make it, either. They have to try without certainty. They must produce and create not because success is given, but because it’s what they do. And then they must wait for time to decide.

ANTVENTURE may never make it on shelves. Its origins may someday be swept away in a far-off memory. But I will not stop working on this story. I will revise the script again. I will trim its edges and fine tune its cogs and polish every word until it shines—until the pages hum with life.

I’m going to dedicate this revision, and the next, and the next, to the queen. Turns out, we weren’t racing after all. We were partners.

I’m sorry her world was not able to flourish, but I know she will live on in mine.

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