A dozen little pieces

I wish my author, L, would keep better track of my life; I wish she wouldn’t leave it strewn about the house in bits and pieces. She’ll have a passing inspiration when she isn’t at her computer, and she’ll jot the idea on a bookmark or a little yellow sticky-note, or, yes, a paper napkin, and promptly forget about it.

Is this brand of carelessness common with writers? Because really, people, this is someone’s life you’ve left sitting on a table to bleed away in a wine spill; someone’s narrative folded into a back pocket to be laundered until only a stain remains; someone’s turning point used as a bookmark and shuffled off to the library in a stack of overdues. Last week, L was emptying the mailbox when she came up with an insight she thought I should have. She recorded this insight—which I was looking forward to learning about—on a folded real estate flyer she’d pulled from the mailbox. Then she sat down and went back to reading Lee Gutkind’s book on creative nonfiction, tucking the flyer between the pages. On Friday that insight disappeared, inside Gutkind’s book, into the slot marked RETURNS at J.S. Wood Library. She’ll never remember it now.

torn noteImagine a special electro-magnet designed to attract only the scraps of paper and napkin and bookmark that have notes about my story on them. If I were to set that magnet on L’s desk and turn it on, and all those forgotten, idea-laden scraps were to rise out of the wastepaper basket in the laundry room, or worm their way out of books she put back on the shelf two months ago, or wiggle their way out of zippered hidey-pockets in her many purses and briefcases, the course of my story might change entirely.

A few weeks ago, L pulled a book off the shelf in her office—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel she really does intend to finish one day. Apparently, she’s dipped into it a few times, because tucked into it in several places were slips of paper marking pages she intends to return to one day. She was fanning through the novel and reading at random here and there, looking for a turn of phrase, a turn of thought, an image—she wasn’t sure what, but something that would send her back to her own writing with a sense of freshness. She does this from time to time with the work of other writers. The idea isn’t to use something someone else came up with, the idea is to send the mind in a new direction. As she was flipping through, she found a slip of paper on which she’d written: Kate has to see him the following week. What was L thinking about when she wrote this urgent note? Who did she think I just had to see? What conundrum did she think she’d solved or, better yet, introduced with this hypothetical meeting? She’s forgotten entirely.

Right now, tucked under the tape dispenser on L’s desk are five torn bits of paper waiting to be taken up and pieced back together. Weeks ago, L borrowed Nancy Huston’s book The Tale Tellers from the library. She liked this book, and while she was reading it she had a thought about me. She wrote the thought on the slip of paper she’d been using to mark her place. As she read on, she came across page after page she wanted to mark so she could come back and reread them later. Because she was lazy, or because she didn’t want to interrupt the Huston Experience long enough to walk across the room to find something else to serve as bookmarks, she started tearing pieces off the slip of paper she’d written her thought on, and using the pieces as markers. The day the book was due, just before L set off for the library, she rediscovered these scraps of paper with her thought distributed across them. Once she’s pieced it back together, I wonder if she’ll act on it. I hope I’ll like this reassembled inspiration. I hope it will show me in a good light. I hope she finds a way to get it into the novel before it goes astray. If not, I’ll take comfort in something I’ve heard her say before: Another idea will come along, it always does. Sometimes it’s better than the one that went missing.

Mentioned in this post: Lee Gutkind, Nancy Huston, Italo Calvino

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7 Responses to A dozen little pieces

  1. Reta Derksen says:

    Nowadays, I’m due for more and more better ideas then. That’s some consolation.

  2. Jenny Ryan says:

    The pages at JSWood have a reputation for extreme thoroughness when checking the returns. I bet if you called them they’d not only have found your notes, but someone might have gone ahead and written your next chapter, too.

  3. Laureen Marchand says:

    Which Lee Gutkind is it? I want to get the right one?

    – Laureen

  4. Hi Laureen. It was Keep It Real. The Booklist review posted at Amazon says, “You would think a guide through the ethical thicket that awaits creative nonfiction writers would have clearer answers. But writer and editor Gutkind seems positively Swiss in his neutrality on the simmering issues that flared into open warfare during the James Frey debacle.”

  5. Norma fairbairn says:

    Oh my, this applies to every “to do” list I create. Whether it is for work, home or travel and especially those really great lists of books that I want to get to and jot down on the back of envelopes when talking on the phone etc. I think Jenny is right, they might be gathering in libraries all over the world and be forming the foundation of their own book in another space/place, maybe Kate could offer to help. I love her writing style.

  6. Thanks, Norma. I like this idea of a book forming itself from all the forgotten notes.

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