WHERE TO BEGIN: ADVICE TO MYSELF AS A WRITER
Eileen A. Joy
With what set of mathematical or chemical hooks or rules of cartography does one devise a formula or theorem or latitude whereby we could calculate the precise route or conduit–by synapse or sinew or overland pass–down which the misery or rage or torpor or ennui of the woman making the sandwiches at the deli counter travels into the sandwich itself and thus weighs upon the eater’s soul with a palpable heaviness, making the salami and pepperoni and provolone cheese, and even the bread itself, finally unpalatable? I have seen the future, and it is this sandwich, and what we are eating, more precisely, is unhappiness. And this is why I often lose my appetite while the #16 Special, The Italian, is being assembled, for the meat is tainted and the very air is charged with indifference between the maker and myself. The ultimate truth of the sandwich is inescapable: if you didn’t hunt and kill and flay the pig, or cure and slice the meat, if you didn’t raise and milk the cow, if you didn’t sow the inflorescent seeds in the furrowed brown rows or pound the amber grains or knead the dough, if you didn’t pull the meal from the fire and lay it upon the table, if you allow someone else to feed and nourish you–if you do not have, in other words, the requisite life experience whereby you earn your board and keep and can taste the very salt of your own sweat in your supper–you become the very vacuum into which other lives rush with all the delicacy of Mack trucks. But, by what means does one calculate such a process? This is the question that intrigues me, for although I know nothing of science, I feel inclined to honor its rigor and precision and elegant proofs in all my endeavors. I do not wish to live by analogy alone. But analogy is precisely what I live by, for I am a writer and the above paragraph represents my latest attempt at starting something, at beginning, at getting it going.
Note to self: it’s important to establish setting first, before the exposition of character. Readers do not generally appreciate vertigo, unless they are Tippi Hedren and they are being paid to be thrust out of a bell tower by Jimmy Stewart.
At present, I reside in a landscape of hubris and pallor and beard stubble–a writer’s retreat, to be exact, set high on a plateau in the Tennessee woods in the middle of a stultifyingly humid July–and while we have been instructed to mingle and not hide in our rooms, I find myself hiding in my room with a bottle of bourbon which I prefer to the company of other writers, all of whom at this retreat are only mingling in the hopes that talent and success are contagious. But the #16 sandwich is not completely beside the point, either. On the one hand, like the bottle of bourbon, it is merely a prop that exists in a story I am trying to write, and which I have admitted is leading nowhere. And this is because things like rising action and plot escape me. On the other hand, within the framework of the larger setting the sandwich makes itself felt by virtue of its absence, for the #16, soaked in oil and vinegar and smothered in roasted red peppers, is nowhere to be found in this land of small cedar cabins, black pines, and soggy egg salad sandwiches, and my soul yearns for it. One cannot write in such a vacuum, which, by the way, Nature abhors.
I am sure you realize how far we have gone without beginning to set incident and situation into motion and with only the tiniest bit of exposition of character, but I will get to that. I will. It’s hard, you know, when you have to contend with Henry James’s question, “What is character but the determination of incident, and what is incident but the illustration of character?” And this from a guy who saw everyone as trapped by situation, and hung up by incident. To be a good writer, like James was, you have to be a sadist, and I’m uncomfortable with violence. But perhaps I should set my own guidelines. Allow me to say here, that after sitting through several workshops at this retreat and gathering into my lap the many aphorisms and categorical imperatives pertaining to the craft of writing left scattered like buckshot on the walnut tables, that I now wish to pursue the following in my work: I wish to write a story in which setting is never established, the metaphors are just pretty and do not serve a thematic intent, no one–not even the narrator (who is passive)–is “invested” in what happens, everything happens “offstage,” characters are not distinguishable one from the other except by brand of cigarette smoked or whiskey drunk, the dialogue is merely about the weather, the historical time period is hazy, there are 876 guns but only one of them is fired, and yet, somehow, everyone is dead at the end, but for what cause, no one is quite sure, not even the narrator, who kills himself by drinking an eight-ounce bottle of ink, and therefore, the last sentence of the story lacks punctuation, which troubles me, but I think I can get past it.
Well, perhaps I should attend to this issue of character a bit more seriously. I would like to remind everyone that character, as a literary term, refers not only to the quantity and quality of the physical details of persons who clutter the pages (shoe sizes, facial tics, etc.), but also to the moral pith (or lack thereof) of those persons. I do not bring up this point to show off my training, but merely because I need some kind of segue which would allow me to mention the ethical vacuity of the majority of the faculty at this retreat. These are the people who spend most of each day exhorting us to honor the English language and the craft of writing with all the reverence and deprivations of ascetic monks, and then spend their evenings drinking and whoring. But hypocrisy is like original sin, we’re all tainted by it, and it would be best not to point fingers. What is really interesting about character is what happens along the continuum between the two moral extremes. “Monsters are more interesting when they have human qualities,” one of the faculty members told us, and we knew he was speaking from experience. We wrote it down, every word. And some of us gave him our cabin numbers.
Note to self: page four is too late for the introduction of plot, but try anyway. Revising oneself at this point is too strenuous.
Part of the problem with plot in a story about a writing retreat is that there are too many of them within close range of each other. For example, there is Linda G. from North Carolina, my roommate, who is also hiding out in the cabin to get drunk with me and who casually mentioned to me last night that her ex-husband had once tried to kill her. This was about five years ago. She was at her apartment cooking dinner for her boyfriend when the ex-husband, Tom, snuck into the backyard and attacked the boyfriend as he was taking out the garbage. Then Tom ran up the back steps, forced his way into the apartment and stabbed Linda G. twice in the chest and hip before stabbing himself in the heart. Amazingly, everyone lived to tell this story: Tom went to jail and Linda G. and the boyfriend got married, but Linda G. has told me that in a series of rough drafts of her “first novel” Tom dies in a variety of horrible ways, including impaling himself on a garden gnome. Thank God Linda G. has come to this retreat so we can guide her to the only ending that could possibly be believed: she and Tom remarry.
Note to self: the truth matters, but not in the way you think it does. It’s not about you. It’s about what the audience wants.
In the cabin next to ours, there is Claire M. from New York, the only surviving member of the three women who went camping in Yosemite last summer and ended up burned beyond recognition in the trunk of a red Pontiac Grand Prix. Okay, I admit it. That’s actually an item from this morning’s newspaper, perused over coffee and dry biscuits, and there is no cabin next to ours. But my point is: plots are everywhere you look. What’s missing, however, is sense and meaning. For example, Claire M. did not survive. Nor was she discovered in the trunk of the burned car, although her two friends were. The torso of her body was found miles away by Lake Pedro, and her head was never recovered. The architect of this nasty piece of brutality turned out to be a motel handyman and his intentions and motivation, as with all psychopaths, are a complete mystery and always will be, hidden forever behind the nucleic veils of a chain of amino acids. My job is to let Claire M. live and to have her make sense of what is insensible or go mad in the process. This brings me to the only two conclusions that are possible in fiction: hope or despair.
Speaking of despair, I can’t help but think of the woman who always prepares my sandwich, the #16 Italian. In point of fact, she’s a composite, but she is also a real woman who I once encountered when ordering the sandwich. She said absolutely nothing to me beyond what had to be said: for here or to go? do you want chips with that? four dollars and seventy-two cents. do you want a bag? But it is precisely that moment of willed refusal on both our parts to articulate anything outside the realm of the transaction itself that fills me with an unexplainable longing. Who is this woman, and why does she go about her business with a look on her face of utter indifference toward her surroundings and her place in them, and perhaps also for me? What does she want from her life and what does she think her odds are, or has she given up already? Why was I there with her, at that moment, standing under the harsh flourescent lighting of the deli? Did fate guide me there, or just my hunger? Was I brought there by a keen attention to my desires, or by a lack of attention? By discernment, or the absence of discernment? Could this woman love me, or I her? It is best to begin with just this question in mind.