“One morning while she was working in her studio in the basement of Tavistock Square, Virginia [Woolf] put down her pen, aware of a faint vibration, as of some deep nerve being plucked. She leaned forward; she held her breath. The eerie and rapturous feeling that something was about to be communicated to her, as from another world. She half closed her eyes and she waited. What came: a muffled music, like distant horns; a soft rising and falling, a rhythm to which she matched her breathing when she breathed again. Looking round her studio, she saw a kind of haze over all—and the next instant her mind took flight: people, houses, streets, landscapes, weather, seasons, friendships, passions, fates, patterns, necessities—
“A new novel.”
—Sigrid Nunez, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998)
I don’t customarily wait for inspiration to begin writing—I’d rather plunge in and hope for the best—but it’s nice when the flash hits me. That’s what happened, about a month ago: A sudden image of a sixteen-year-old boy, dressed nattily in suit and tie, sitting at a card table in a restaurant’s walk-in cooler. The table is covered with a lush blue-and-silver tablecloth (Art Deco simple pattern of alternating blue and silver swans) and on it is an opened tin of shiny black caviar, pearl knife slipped within its mass; glistening, cold smoked salmon, drizzled with honey and topped with green, sour capers, lay on a porcelain plate; a flute glass full of high-dollar champagne rests near the boy’s tapping fingers.
It’s the first time he’s seen or eaten anything this fancy, and I’m going to spend the next year or so trying to figuring out how he got to this point, and what comes after that.
I’ve tried to write fiction all my life, in a variety of ways. As a kid, I scribbled in wide-looping cursive, in spiral notebooks. I included my own illustrations. For a couple of novel manuscripts written in college, I just tried to put one foot in front of the other, and not map out the structure in advance. Since that didn’t work, I tried with my next manuscript (a children’s book) to outline everything in detail, but that just turned out stilted. The poetry, which I don’t much of anymore, comes out in bursts that get revised a day later, and then left alone. The two completed screenplays—one feature-length, one a silent short—came in torrents; from start to finish, I was done with each in less than two months. Short stories I’ve written begin just as my blog posts and nonfiction—a series of loose connections, things I’ve been mulling over, that find their way over time as I let them percolate in my brain. Some works, some does not. I’ve been proud enough of three short stories to spend a year submitting them to journals and having them rejected. A poem’s showed up in a literary review you’ve never heard of (and won’t right now).
One thing that’s never changed: I’ve always started from the beginning and wrote linearly. And that’s why this new flash excites me—it’s not the beginning. I can see the characters, the city (Dallas), the situations, a lot of the relationships, and I can see clearly that none of them begins in this walk-in cooler, with this teenage boy. Yet again, I’m going to try something new. I won’t try to write from the novel’s (or novella’s) beginning up to this point, and then continue on to the end. Rather, I want to branch out in both directions from the cooler, writing the scenes and plots and loves and heartaches and little victories around this. I’ll figure out the connective tissue once I’ve built the boy’s environment, his place in this world. Hell, by the time I get done, the scene may not exist in the final manuscript.
Anyway, if you’ve been wondering why this blog is on an abbreviated posting schedule this summer (and why this will probably be extended until the new year), well, now you know. I’ve got to see about a boy and his caviar.