moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet
“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.
As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.
The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.
When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.
I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.
If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.
Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.
So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.
When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.
These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.
Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.
Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.
Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.
“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”