In the 15th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Carole Burns, author of The Missing Woman (Parthian Books), describes the process of starting something new.
My stories begin in pieces. I write in longhand, often in a lined, spiral college notebook, putting down images, preoccupations, descriptions of people. I seldom sit down with a story in mind; stories form on the page.
“My Life in Dog Years,” from my collection, began when I wrote down the snippet of conversation, overheard in a bookshop cafe, which became the opening line. “The City of Brotherly Something” connected two images I’d been playing with: the PECO sign shining in my friend’s Philadelphia apartment, and a woman sitting at the top of a brownstone staircase between two potted trees. When the imaginary woman rented my friend’s apartment, I began to see a story.
A long time ago, my advisor in graduate school told our workshop: You can’t write a novel the way you write a short story.
So the first time I started a novel, I spent three days at MacDowell trying to write the beginning, and failing. Finally, I just plunged in, and wrote the hardest scene. It took me years to finish that novel (it’s now making the rounds), so maybe my advisor was right.
But I don’t know how else to do it.
So these last few weeks, I’m starting a “new project” (I don’t dare call it a book yet) in the same way. Each morning, I head off to a local library in Cardiff, Wales, where I live, with a few pens and a spiral notebook, and write whatever snippet of the larger story comes to mind.
I have to admit these days are glorious.
Unlike with a short story, I have a big idea, but the people and event and countless particulars are sketchy indeed. I fill the story in by writing. The scenes and characters I’m scribbling on the page may belong to any part of the story, and may or may not end up in the final version months and months from now. I don’t worry about that at the moment—I can’t pre-edit.
The endless possibilities for the story remain open to me. My character says this here; no, she says that. I keep them both in my notebook. An essential event happens this way; no, it happens that way. I don’t have to decide yet, because I don’t know. For a person who hates making decisions, this is a very comforting way to work.
At some point, when I feel I have enough—when I feel I’ve earned it—I will take these notes and put them onto my computer, where they will expand and contract, lead to new scenes and ideas, be given some order, and take a shape on the page. The writing and rewriting will begin. I’d certainly have enough by now if these were stories, but I’m not sure yet—I’m afraid of stopping this free-roaming, imaginative phase too soon.
Friends ask me: How’s it going? Not a clue, I say. Just words on a page right now. But I sort of know that the words some days are better than others. Bad days produce just ideas, character traits, descriptions, polemics—useful, maybe necessary. But some mornings, I look back and find a scene that I’m right in the middle of. It’s alive. I’m inside it. Sometimes, I’d forgotten I’d written it. That’s a good day.
But I try not to think of all that—it might freeze me up. It’s working that matters. I was lucky enough to interview Michael Cunningham, who told me that on “bad” writing days, he would sometimes come up with just one good sentence. “I’ve found, though,” he said, “that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad.”
So I keep sitting with my pen and lined paper.
At precisely one o’clock, I am thrown out, occasionally in mid-sentence, when the library closes for lunch.
I’ve always resisted Hemingway’s idea to leave yourself knowing where you’ll start the next day. I want to explore my ideas immediately, before they fly away. But I can’t now, and I’m finding that’s fine.
I’m writing, and it’s a good day.