Saturday, January 16, 2010

my wife lies weeping in the next room

The past eight mornings there has been a single, often slightly ominous sentence dangling in my forebrain upon waking. This morning's entry was, "My wife lies weeping in the next room and there is nothing I can do."

These are first sentences to a new story, and when they appear I can see the playing cards pop up, all in a row, depicting all the kinds of stories a sentence like this might generate. There's the obvious--the battered woman, the woman in a cage, the woman who has lost a child, the woman poised for flight from comfort and good circumstance. Yesterday's morning entry was, "No one could remember the last time someone came out of the Harrison house, so there was a lot of local excitement because someone was going in." The popped cards on this one all have an odor of decay--we all know, without being told, that disturbing the innards of the Harrison house will be a terrible mistake.

It's amazing how the human instinct for how stories are structured can take a fragment of prose and map out, almost instantly, the narrative consequences--we take this for granted when in fact it's a minor miracle. I think it was A.S. Byatt who once pointed out (in a story, of course), that all stories have already been told and it's a matter of retelling them--although now that I've said that I'm not entirely sure it's true. Her character was at an academic conference about stories, and the topic was Patient Griselda (see upper left), and I think that was something that was said--the point of Griselda is that she outlasts all, that she is immovable in her willingness to wait. The only thing that can defeat her is the story itself, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This is the consequence of abandoning a story of my own--one I was caught up in but couldn't control. It's as if my own instinct for story, now left with nothing to do, still spins relentlessly while my back is turned. This is another minor miracle, that the human brain can generate madly without any prompting. But I bring this up because today, for the first time, I had a flash thought about my abandoned manuscript, A Calendar of Saints. Could it be that I understand every sentence I write as the first one, and this is why writing fiction is a hopeless task? That I can't manage middles and ends because I only understand the grammar of beginnings? It's seeing the cards pop that brings me the most satisfaction, and maybe this explains the creepy, careening, shapeless narratives that seem to be the only kind I can write. I don't want to retell, as Byatt describes. I'm lazy. I want to offer a book of first sentences and have the reader do that work for me.

And in the meantime, someone's wife lies weeping in the next room.

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