As November ends, NaNoWriMo-ers approach their 50,000th word… or they stash their just started, half-finished, or chaotic manuscripts. Whatever they produce, they deserve admiration. I couldn’t begin to write a novel in one month. As a fiction writer, I compose only sketchy parables, puny vignettes, elaborated anecdotes. At this stage, I don’t expect to write fiction well.
Though occasionally I try. Virginia Woolf compared fiction to a spider’s web attached to reality at four corners—delicately, maybe invisibly. Sometimes, walking in the city, I encounter an image that unwinds as the opening to a story. I compose a sentence:
Books crowded a table outside. Stacked as on a shelf, on their backs, or with spines turned up, they wanted his attention, and he passed them by, turning to the busy street instead.
Then I wonder where the story would go—perhaps he’s just broken up with a girl who may, at that moment, be cheerfully asking a customer if he found everything he wanted. Or perhaps the bookstore was once his, lost now because he allowed his partner to buy him out, and he doesn’t want to see inventory he once purchased.
For a true fiction writer, reality hides truth. Those books on the table outside don’t need invention. Someone who could really see into the situation would spy the story. To him or her, every place would be a condition, and every situation an emblem of a life.
At the corner of the block, the bridge appeared, all its surfaces illuminated by early sun. In the street’s shadows, it seemed a separate reality.
Then I wonder if I’m being too obvious—the bridge is a clear symbol, and illumination must represent hope quite out of the protagonist’s reach. The word “protagonist” itself is deadly and yet a regular part of my thinking. David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction is about what it is like to be a human being,” and I’m a human being who teaches English, one doomed to construct.
The students I teach often write what I’d call “Secondary fictions,” stories based not on their lives but on other depictions of life they’ve seen on television or in movies and bad books. Though I urge them to turn from stories they’ve encountered, my opportunity to start a story at the board begins:
Home late, she found her husband curled on the couch, so she covered him with a blanket, switched off the lights, and went to bed. The next day, the coroner said that, by that time, he must already have been dead.
At the memorial, everyone called Ash a saint, and Sofia nodded politely. When they said his death was a surprise, she agreed. That was safe.
What do I know about Sofia’s peculiar grief? I can guess what sudden death does to her and maybe construct something clever to reveal later in the story—perhaps the night Ash died, she went to an office party and lingered with a coworker she’d fantasized seducing. But will the spark to raise this story from dead convention come from my guesses? I’m not sure I know where stories come from. “The deepest failures of any fiction writer,” Richard Russo says, “are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story he or she is telling.”
My fiction often wanes before it begins, and, though I can teach young writers about creating narrative, I could use their self-assurance, their confidence they will move Sofia in lifelike ways through the next hours, days, weeks, or years. I leave her just where she is, confused and glancing around for direction.
Here’s the start of another fiction from the moleskin I carry in my back pocket:
She screamed at him, but bar noise washed it away. He smiled at her moving lips, and, as long as she smiled back, he was doing the best he could.
I recognize I’m “him.” I once went to bars and practiced lip-reading, and the sentence aspires to empathize with my awkward desperation. Yet he isn’t me, or, rather, he shouldn’t purely be me. Fiction is a sort of magic where objects fly, where inert words sprout wings and dart into the distance, a reader’s imagination pursuing. Having read so much great fiction, I’m doomed to recognize what happens when stories pull you along. And don’t.
One more sentence from my moleskin:
Each Monday, a steady machine chug began at 7:45 and continued for 45 minutes. A number of times David craned his neck at the window but could never see a source.
I could write this story. David’s ignorance is a grander ignorance. Though he might so easily discover the source of that sound, he stands at the window instead, pressing his forehead to the glass and seeing only the opposite building, a flat angle on the wall of the building he occupies, and nothing of the alley hidden from his view. Why he can’t see—or doesn’t move to see more—is a mystery. He might not really want to know. He might not have the will to go far enough. He may not believe in the noise enough.
“Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all,” Raymond Chandler said, “in the end he knows the tricks and has nothing to say.”
Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo-ers. I envy you.