I’m writing a novel—yes, the “N” word. Opened a new document and called it simply that: Novel.doc. Into the document I began pouring some of the loosely intersecting rivulets of story I have been collecting for the past three years. Like jigsaw pieces, I find where one jagged edge snap clicks into another, at the same time discovering inconsistencies and impossible time frames crashing loose into new pieces, breaking away, forming new stories.
As of this moment I can verify over two hundred pages of double spaced novel (though I have no business calling it that), now three-hole punched into an unmarked binder. I dare not give it a name, like the fable from my old-world culture warns, lest the angel of death carry it away before it takes its first breath. I do stare at it sometimes, pick it up to feel its weight, fan my fingers through the lifeless pages hoping they will speak to me. So far they have said something like this:
Once upon a time there lived an old woman, old by most standards, older than I to be sure, but younger than someone I would not yet want to be. Old because her skin is beginning to sag and her place in time is not as interesting as it once was, and there lies my challenge. To make this lifeless creature interesting. I have decided to name her Hannah.
The story begins as Hannah inherits a piece of rugged land with nothing but a shoddy rat-infested shack on it. Her previous life, as much as I know of it, was flat and dull and predictable, but that may be because I am not yet able to see into the past and only mildly equipped to create her future.
So far she has met a few neighbors along her rough and tumbled road, an older gent who appears burdened by the weight of his expectations. He’s a kindly old man named Winston Till and don’t ask where that name came from. It flew in like a meteor and stuck solid. He has a son, Robin, strange name for a man but there it is. You can’t fight fiction. It lands and stays and you can’t argue with the imaginary. I can see the shape of his legs as he pulls himself into his truck, waving goodbye to his bedraggled kids, his tired fate. Robin’s wife left him with the kids, left him for some healing jerk of a guru. The kids are named Grace (age eight) and the five-year old Tyler or Travis or Timothy, I can’t decide, only know it starts with a “T.” So far they have left no scuff marks at the door, no telltale smells. I expect that one or both of the children will at some point spill into the old woman’s life, and she will in turn spill into their grandfather’s life and their father’s too. Maybe that is all that the book needs to be about—the creation of family out of scattered strangers.
Hannah has a car, a Dodge Dart, hideously out of date, but here is where I am stuck. I don’t know what year it is. If it’s a gas-guzzling dinosaur, and she is old, then in what year does this story take place? The gas-guzzling 70’s? But what about the soaring housing prices that I refer to in another chapter. That would put us in the ‘90’s. Each accidental explosion of information sits by itself, sorry and alone, with no other fact to keep it company. The car itself could be the story, how it breaks down, perhaps crashes, it could be the very vehicle (as it were), that carries her from page one to the heartbreaking or heartwarming conclusion. Then again the car may only warrant a word, a half page at most, or stay stuck in my head where I keep hearing the protagonist’s gravelly voice cursing as she raps her hand on its cracked leather dashboard, beseeching it to start up when the old key turns.
What am I supposed to do I do with all this? It has grown too thick to throw away. It is a story loosely formed, the story of my attempt to start something and finish it, happy if it is never read, the writing itself, like a mountain that begs to be climbed, even in the face of stubborn silences. What if I only go half way up, the rocks shaky but secure enough, allowing me to slip and glide around my writing hours, happy for the breezes, the sun on my back, the constantly changing shapes.
Two new characters, Ralph and Callie, have recently emerged and I feel them growing on me. I can see that their window ledge is deep—more like a window seat—allowing the young mother to look out at a troubled front lawn. Ralph sells sprinkler systems and Callie is stuck at home with an infant she doesn’t particularly feel drawn to. They were high school sweethearts, that much I know. I have created them, sometimes down to the freckles on their ears, but then have no idea what to do with them.
Winston’s son Robin may or may not help the old woman fix up her house, I’m still figuring that out but it’s an obvious connection. And there’s a strong possibility that Robin may run into Callie strolling her baby down the road and anything might happen then.
Today, when my body was relaxed but my mind had seized itself around a single word, Robin, I tried to write about this troubled young man. Robin and Winston. Father and son. What is the nature of their relationship and how can I profess to invent them when I’ve never been a father and I’ve never been a son. What exactly do I think I’m doing out here? Robin’s wife left him for some new-age guru and there are shades in my own life in that narrative. As the stories open up or shut down at the tip of my fingers, I sometimes wonder, am I creating them or are they creating me?
I almost threw Pete away. Almost deleted two chapters of the junk man who lives in the property adjacent to Hannah’s, across the road from Callie and Ralph. He’s got an arsenal of broken down trucks littering his property and is not entirely fictional. I modeled him after the jerks who live across the street from me in my actual real-life neighborhood and maybe I’m writing this novel so I can stick it to them, laugh them right off the pages. I almost ripped Pete out of the story altogether but something stopped me. I knew I’d miss him if I did.
Each time Pete scratches his dusty beard, or Hannah reaches over to pet her cat, or Ralph takes an angry swig of beer, or Winston sighs in exhausted agony, the story moves and shifts and falters and decides something, with or without me.
A retreat is what I need. Vegetarian cooking and the crashing of waves. I’ll write my novel there.
You can see how painful and how boring it is to be lost in one’s own writing. How difficult to justify the arbitrary creation of fiction when the every day is already so far from real. I have added nine pages to my story today and my arm is aching. This is the journey and so I must be part way there.