Serpent Blog

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“The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.” Flannery O'Connor

Yes Flannery, we are made out of dust, cosmic dust, the smallest particles of which we may soon actually discover, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN next month. Strangelets, monopoles, bosons. The very essence of everything that is. Photons, gluons, quarks. The deeper we probe, the more we discover. Life is infinitely complex.

Stories are built out of dust. You sit for hours, days, weeks, plucking with tweezers the little particles of dust from yourself and carefully arranging them so that they resemble a new living thing separate from yourself yet still connected, so tenuously, that each particle seems to depend on the other for its strength and meaning. You feel that it can crumble back to dust at any moment. And it can. The journey of a story’s creation is treacherous and painful. And it can sometimes take years.

The materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Shame, doubt, sudden pangs of unabashed love. Leaves, water, light. We draw from the flotsam of our lives. What are my materials? There are the places I’ve been and the people whose lives I’ve entered, or who’ve entered me. It we are lucky, we will collide with each other, at random, and take away little bits of each other and then, if we’re luckier still, spin off on a whole new trajectory, slightly altered for the interaction. Slightly better.

While I was writing Serpent Box I experienced moments of terror when it seemed as if the whole story was in danger of slipping out of my hands and vanishing forever. Because I didn’t know how to write a story (and still don’t) I lived in perpetual fear. Each morning I would gather what dust the earth itself would yield to me. My daily walk with my dog would guide the day’s writing. The dog would lead and I would follow. I believe we can learn much from a dog. Where the dog would take me, I was meant to go, and what I saw, though small and insignificant, was placed there for me to use. Many of the things that made it in to the novel came directly from these micro-journeys – owls, serpents, cloud movements, the shape of a tree, the quality of light. But it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t getting myself dusty.

John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters, became my guide. Within this slim volume, I found the courage and the method to mine my own dust. Collected here are Steinbeck’s daily letters to his editor and friend Pascal Covici. He wrote them while writing East of Eden, and though he was at that time no rookie, he clearly faced the page as I did, with all the doubt and emptiness of a first time novelist. Steinbeck’s ‘method’ helped inform my own budding process and I began to write a letter every morning before I began the actual writing of Serpent Box in order to help me understand what I had done the day before and what I hoped to do in the day’s writing ahead.

Your dust is everything you are and everything you see. It swirls all around you, though sometimes it needs to be stirred up, like algae in a pond. The dust of me lies in my earliest memories, and in those flashes of revelation that manifest themselves when the then is juxtaposed with the now. Two forces are at work on the writer of fiction, the past and the present, and between the two the lens of the story itself, which draws the two into focus to provide for a collision of particles that yield something new. The story is an instrument of becoming, not the product of it. And that is why some stories take years to form, and some never form, but lie in stasis waiting the collision which will set them spinning.

I wrote 162 pages of “warm-up” letters while writing Serpent Box. Reading them now will bring me to tears. They are stark and self-effacing and pathetic. But writing them helped me to find the story and find myself. I wrote them to a friend, who would kindly answer indirectly, helping me to find my own way, my own dust. The dust of fiction reveals itself not concretely, but as grains of flowing sand whose form can be glimpsed through careful observation and reflection, and then only briefly. Writing fiction is a grand job, and the question is, am I good enough for it?


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