I have spent my blogging years turning the incidents of my life into story. It comes naturally to me, much more naturally than making art or writing fiction. It's as if I have a documentary camera crew in my head as I go about my day. Those of you who blog understand exactly what I am talking about.
It can be exhausting. And annoying to those you love.
I read a wonderful quote yesteday in a little book called The Cape Cod Reader by the naturalist, Robert Finch. He was writing about the first whale watching trip that he took his granddaughter on. After much anticipation, they boarded the ship and pulled out past Race Point and into Stellwagen Bank. High winds and large waves had most of the whale watchers huddling in the cabin, their faces in vomit bags. His little granddaughter soon succumbed and spent most of the trip slumped against her father. Finch, of course, felt terrible that his granddaughter's first whale trip ended so disastrously. By the time they we disembarking, however, the little girl was, as he termed it, crafting the narrative to turn it into the story when they would say, "Remember the trip when we all got sea sick?"
Crafting the narrative. That's what writers do. We turn the pedestrian into story. We stand back from life and observe. We pick out the small details that make a story live: the chipped nail polish on the big toe of our adversary in court; the very vintage Coach briefcase scuffed to the point of rendering the color impossible to identify; and the tattered edges of her file folders that spill onto the table before the bench when the judge calls the case. We assume that she is down on her luck, that her practice has dwindled, that she probably was laid off from a corporate in house position at late midlife and has spent the last ten years just scrambling to pay the bills. We graft a life onto the unknowing and unwitting recipient and then the story becomes something that walks and talks indepedently of its host.
Yes, we are opportunistic and parasitic, and like mistletoe, we live on other's branches but bring so much joy into the world. Who, after all, doesn't delight in the myth of the mistletoe and feel obliged to kiss beneath it? Writers crawl into the moment through the rabbithole of slyness. As we are conversing, I pick up on the tinge of drawl when you mention your "hay-ah", and despite your black strapless dress and severe silver earrings, I tumble back through your past and see you cheerleading at White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee. You came to New York to get over a broken heart when Buddy dumped you for the head cheerleader after faithful dating all through high school. Only now you're 40 and never married and brittle and your parents are convinced you are gay, though you are not, and they have you on the prayer list at the church, which they tell you every time you call.
Or so it seems.
I don't have to know if I am right. It doesn't matter. I am not, after all, a psychic or a room reader, or even a prognosticator. I am just a writer who keeps her thoughts to herself and a piece of paper - or be truthful, a keyboard. If you were to run into yourself in one of my stories, you probably wouldn't recognize yourself, though something about the character might ring true to you and you might take a sudden and unexplained dislike to the tall, quiet, assistant who eats a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers everyday for breakfast, biting them in half and then quarters from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. each day, and talks in a murmur on the phone to her mother in Spanish while typing your reports. Funny, you like Ritz crackers, too, but you hate people who eat while they talk on the phone.
We worm our way into the hearts and minds of those we not just love, but those we brush up against each day: the tiny, thin woman with the thyroid eyes who goes to the caferia each morning to buy the quart of whole milk her office mates will use in their coffee, some remembering to put their dollar a week in the kitty, some not. You'll notice that she always holds the elevator and smiles vaguely in your direction, but refuses to meet your eye. You'll know instantly that she has a disabled child, one who needs constant attention, and she is always one more event away from being suspended because she has to leave so often when he has a medical emergency and you have to meet the caregiver at the ER each time.
Or so it seems.
We mine your thoughts and words like aliens planting a pod inside you that will take over your limbs and lead you where we want you to go. We tuck away your eye color, the slant of your jaw, the worn down right heel that confirms you drive to work, the large Starbucks you carry with you each morning, indicating you live in an urban area, and know that your backstory will be jotted down on the back of a legal pad before the morning is over. Pick by pick we collect the coals of your lives and sit on them into we turn it into a 40-carat diamond.
Or so we hope.
Everything is fodder, Nora Ephron's mother told her, everything.
I do it best in essay form. The words spin in my head faster than I can type them. And I have to type them. My mind is going too fast to wait for my fingers to form clumsy letters or indecipherable script with ballpoint or pencil. I need to let it spew, as it were, and then clean it up word by word. I know how to start it, opening paragraph, state my thesis, develop my argument, give examples, and wind it up with a pithy and breathless summary. It is what I do.
Fiction is a bother. Plot stymies me. Oh, it's not that I can't invent plot; I can't stop inventing them. I can't stick to one. Stories wander. They pick up lint and burrs and get tangled in the bushes. My plot develops subplots and sideplots and births a few baby plots out of wedlock. The notebooks multiply, journals litter the car, the bedroom, the bag. Lists of words flutter from books. Scrapbooks of tear outs threaten to avalanche off the desks. The desks themselves are covered with reference books, newspaper clipings, fabrics, paints, old photos. I have files of files on my laptop: one for illustration examples; one for research links; another for drafts and drafts and drafts.
One book multiplies - or divides, really - into two and somehow I am simultaneously writing a novel and illustrating a nonfiction book. Both overlap, both call for attention, both keep me up at night leafing through books about astronomy and sea captains and wind djinns. At Home Depot, I stuff my pockets full of paint chips of smoky greys, clear harbor blues, deep seaweed greens, and posies of violets.
I could be writing a book, or writing two books, or furnishing a house, or stocking a home furnishings store, or beginning a series of folk art paintings, or just collecting an amazing assortment of pictures, shells, feathers, nests, paints, papers, poetry, writings, and novels - and perhaps that will be my only legacy.
So this week on Cornflower, I read the comments by the wonderful writer Linda Gillard, and shook my head in agreement vigorously and wrote to Karen and she wrote back and sent me the link to this, which made me gasp in recognition and made me cry in relief. A fellow writer who pushes her way into the work the same way I do! And is published! And I am impatiently waiting to get the lovely book . We agreed that there is no one way, but yes, my way is a particularly hard and long way, but it is my way and if I stay focused (oh, the focus is the hard part, I will tell you another day a comment a very old friend made to me that rocked me back on my heels) I will reach the end or at least the beginning and it will flow like a faucet with the stops open all the way.
Maybe someday I will sit down at my desk and be able to outline a novel from start to finish like Ann Patchett, who is not only prolific but brilliant, but probably not. Most likely I will continue to do what I do and as fair warning, it won't leave much time for blogging long essays, but it will keep you in pretty pictures of things I've discovered in the name of research and may have to ask for you input here and there, and I so wish I could just talk about it all here, but you know, you never do that.A novel is a secret act. Until it's written. Or parts anyway.
I have to go now and be very stern with a set of characters who are twins and I cannot decide if they are brother and sister or husband and wife or widow and widower to other twins. Then I have to interview another character who took a bike ride aimlessly out of town and ended up at a little harbor where she found an apartment that turns out to be rented by the son of her new employer and I have to find out what he said and why he's there and why is he a secret.
It's exhausting. I need a casting director and script supervisor, and oh please, yes, yes, a director!
For now, I must go collect the painting pads and notebooks that are scattered throughout the dining room and porch. Mr. Pom would like a place to sit down.