My new man

It’s true I haven’t appeared here in months. I’ve been busy just trying to absorb all the changes my author L has written into the draft of the novel where I’m living. And now a new man has appeared in my life. I’m not talking about Nick, the romantic interest; he’s been with me since the first draft. I’m talking about a different sort of man.

HistoryBookRight now, his name is Bumper Sticker, but I’ve been living inside a novel-in-progress long enough to know that names can change according to the whim of the author. I have a lot of sympathy for Bumper Sticker, who seems to be one of the lost and lonely. He hangs out at the fictional public library where I work. It’s become his refuge—a public building that’s heated in winter and cooled in summer and has the comfort of other people reading and working and searching the Internet. For him, I think, it’s either hang out at the library or walk the streets or sit alone at home. He haunts the stacks in the history section, sometimes pulling down a book and scribbling a cryptic comment in a margin. His scribbles might amount to messages of some sort, but no one at the library can figure out who they’re written for, or exactly what they mean.

If you were to meet Bumper Sticker in real life you might say, “He’s a real character, that one.” He first appeared a number of years ago, in a short story L was writing. She never did finish that piece, but the man wouldn’t die, and now he’s shown up halfway through my story. I wonder, is this common practice among writers, to recycle old ideas in new ways? I mean, would Alice do this?

Bumper sticker wears second-hand dress pants and a scruffy sports coat and running shoes, one of which is tied round the toe-box with a plastic grocery bag from the Co-op. Knotted around his left arm, in about the place where a person would wear a mourning band, is an orange scarf. Two long tails hang from the knot. They swing when he walks. One of these long tails carries a message, spelled out in clumsy embroidery, big block letters.

Trouble is, because the fabric hangs in twists and folds, the message isn’t clear. I can’t help thinking that if only my author could decipher it, we’d have a key that would help us understand more deeply what my story’s about. Unless, of course, my story is about the fact that there are things we’ll never know.

I wish L would sort this out. I’m one of those people who isn’t comfortable with this idea of not knowing.

Mentioned in this post: Alice Munro; marginalia

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A manner of speaking

I once heard my author, L, tell another writer that her troubles with the novel she’s writing—the one where I’m the main character—became more manageable the day my voice finally came chattering up off the stack of manuscript pages on her work table. This was terribly important, because the novel is written in the first person. I’m telling the story, so my writer has to know how I sound.

Kate at St. Peter's AbbeyThat conversation happened at a retreat for writers and artists at a Benedictine abbey on the Prairies. Each writer had a bedroom that also served as a studio, and so L’s work table was close by the bed. Here, in more detail, is what L said to her friend: I’d given up. I couldn’t work anymore. I hated the novel. I lay down on the bed, and I was just looking up at the ceiling and thinking about nothing in particular, and I heard Kate’s voice come chattering up off the page.

Certainly I was relieved to hear her say she’d found my voice. Now she could rewrite those two hundred sorry pages using words and phrases that would feel more natural to me. I would be more at home in my own story. I might even have new thoughts; at the very least I’d be in a position to better express the thoughts she’d already given me. This was all to the good, but there are two things about L’s comment that I can’t just let slide by: First, I object to the verb chattering. I do not chatter. I prefer to think I muse, consider, recount, make pithy observations, and deliver insightful commentary, along the with odd joke. Second, she makes it sound a bit magical, this idea of my voice just starting itself up like that. I suppose I can forgive her use of chattering. I know that L chooses her words with much more care when she’s writing about me than she exercises when she’s talking to a friend over a glass of scotch, and for this I’m grateful. As for the magic, well, no.

I do love it when L lies down to take a break, because the restrictions she puts on my behaviour in the normal course of her work are lifted. The controlling part of her brain takes a back seat, and I get to dance or sing or go out to the movies. It’s kind of like after midnight in The Nutcracker. Which, again, might sound like magic, but really it has to do with what happens inside the human brain, which I wrote about in this post.

I remember an incident from a few years ago, when L was out for a morning run with a friend. L had been to a new restaurant the evening before, and when her friend asked if the restaurant was any good, L replied, Yeah, we liked it. We had a really good feed. They ran on for a couple dozen steps more, and then L’s friend said, We do betray our rural backgrounds, don’t we, when we use expressions like ‘really good feed.’

L supposed so. She was a little embarrassed to have reverted to her small-town manner of speaking. Was it sort of like the immigrant who’s worked hard to learn English, and then comes a situation where they just need to swear, and the swear-word comes out in Ukrainian or Polish or Arabic or whatever? And did this mean that matters to do with food were as elemental, as primal, in L’s experience, as situations that called for swearing?

Here’s what I think: She should be glad she can fall back so easily into an earlier voice. My voice didn’t rise magically from the sorry stack of pages on L’s work table at the abbey, it rose up from inside L. It braided itself together from the contents of a big basket she carries around, consciously or unconsciously, in her mind. The basket is full of words and intonations; and a jumble of sensibilities to do with what’s funny and not funny, some of which are at odds with each other; and various ways of encoding cynicism and hope and love and despair; and quirky turns of phrase and turns of attitude. L has collected the basket’s contents over her lifetime to date, from voices she heard growing up in a small town, voices she heard when she worked as a waitress at a still-impressionable age, voices of people she was close to in her early twenties, people she’s worked with, volunteered with, had arguments with. The voices she’s most likely to channel in unguarded moments are the ones she heard between ages zero and twenty-five. My manner of speaking is a composite of voices she knew in her twenties, including her own. I’m happy she’s held onto those voices; if she hadn’t, I’d be mute.

Mentioned in this post: St. Peter’s Abbey; Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild Retreats; Imagine: How Creativity Works; magic

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Kill your darlings

Kill your darlings. Throw them in the bin. Writers say that all the time. I’ve heard my author L say it under her breath, referring to portions of the novel she’s writing about me. I’ve seen her do it, and it gives me the shakes. In the course of crafting any piece of writing, there comes a time when the author has to jettison portions of her own work. Writing she’s come to love, writing that strikes her as brilliant. Entire set pieces, or windy, philosophy-laden paragraphs, or jazzy little riffs. Entire chapters, sometimes.

Kate on a rulerThis sort of violence is more than a little upsetting for the character who has to live with the carnage. Sometimes those darlings are my darlings too. Here’s a for instance: L likes to make jokes based on humourous wording she discovers on signs and labels and in classified ads. I share her sense of humour in this regard, and so she lets me use these jokes in the novel she’s writing about me. For example, there’s the one about the nurse whose name tag reads Nurse B. Lowe. In the section L recently cut from the novel, I’m at the hospital, and Nurse B. Lowe is looking after me. I read her name tag out loud: Nurse B. Lowe, I say, can you tell me where I might find Nurse A. Bove? Funny, right? I think so. But L has cut the entire section where that line appeared.

I’m not saying it’s easy for L. She has to, as I said, cut out sections she’s come to love. She’s come to love them because she stumbled on the apt verb only after an hour-long walk in the fresh air. Or she’s come to love them because the words seemed to flow effortlessly through the keyboard or the tip of a ballpoint, and the apt verb was there right from the start. She spends ages dreaming up this stuff and crafting it just so. But if the story’s changed since she wrote a particular bit, and now that bit is working against the rest, it’s got to go. Or maybe it doesn’t work against the story, but nor does it add anything. The idea that fascinated her when she wrote it is, to be honest, quite likely to bore anyone else. Or it’s writing she did in order to understand a character, and that was a necessary part of her process, but she doesn’t need to drag the reader along through all the brambles and scratches of her process.

I miss my little nurse joke. I know it’s still sitting on L’s computer, inside a folder labelled Darlings. Even though she’ll probably never go back to them, it makes her feel better, less insecure, to store her culls away in a safe place. So in fact, she doesn’t really murder her darlings, she preserves them cryogenically. (Does she hope that one day science will find a cure for what ails them?)

I’m on a campaign to get L to splice the nurse joke back in. After all, I do end up in hospital before the end of the novel. Maybe we can get L to give me back the joke. Clap your hands, everyone.

Number of significant darlings murdered in the course of writing this post: 4.

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The B word

Writer’s block? No, I wouldn’t use that expression to describe what’s happening at this blog. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, because I have been writing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started posts on any number of topics: about how a writer must, as Faulkner is reported to have said, kill her darlings; about when and where my author, L, first became aware of my voice and how it sounded in her head; about the central quest that drives the novel L is writing about my life.

Kate with crumpled manuscriptI’ve written thousands of words about these topics, and I haven’t succeeded in finding the shape for a single blog post that I’m happy with. I’m in a fortunate position, though, being a character living inside a writer’s head. When I get into this sort of trouble I can study what my author does when she has the same sort of trouble—when she’s been writing and writing but she can’t make anything worthwhile out of what she’s written. She can’t find the shape, the insight, the central idea that will bring it all together.

Do you know what she does? She doesn’t stay there at the keyboard. She walks away; she stops trying so hard. She’ll go for a walk or a run, or she’ll get out her bicycle and pedal along the Meewasin Trail. She doesn’t leave the house with any intention of thinking about work; no, she’s out there for the exercise; she’s out there to experience the river and the wind and the birdsong and the puddles at the curb. Here’s what happens, often as not, when she gets out there: She stumbles on the answer to whatever writing problem she was trying to solve.

This isn’t magic, and it isn’t divine intervention, it’s neuroscience. Creativity wunderkind Jonah Lehrer can be seen all over creation (pun intended) these days in support of his new book that reviews the science of how this works—how aha! moments, flashes of insight, result from the alpha wave activity that a certain part of the brain generates when the mind relaxes. Here’s the paradox: In order to think of the answer to a question, you have to stop thinking.

When she leaves the house, L is so intentional about not being intentional that she doesn’t even carry a pen and an index card. This means that when an idea strikes, she has no place to write it down. She has to think of a mnemonic, a shorthand way to remember it, until she gets within reach of a pen. For instance, thinking of a stone will help her remember that one of her characters (me, for example) has something in her life that’s begun to feel like a weight (my camera, for example—lately its strap has been digging into my shoulder, and it’s come to symbolize so much more to me than an apparatus for taking photographs). So L files away this thought and relaxes once more, and—ping!—another idea hits. She has to come up with another mnemonic.

She knows her limit, and her limit is three new ideas per outing. I’ve seen her try to hold on to more, and it’s a mistake. She gets overloaded and all the ideas float off, despite my leaping around up here in her gray matter trying to catch them. If she already has three new ideas and a fourth one appears when she pauses on University Bridge to watch the breeze play over the surface of the river, she has to just let that bonus idea drift away. Breaks my heart to see some wonderful new turn in my life disappear into the blue like that. I suppose L has learned to trust that something just as useful will appear some other day while she’s on another walk.

L has other tricks that will sometimes produce the same result as going for a walk. For instance, she’ll give up on a story or a chapter or a paragraph, and she’ll go lie on the couch. She might last all of eight seconds before her mind lights on something in spite of itself and, hello, she’s off the couch and back at the keyboard.

Here’s another thing she’ll do when she isn’t getting anywhere. She’ll find a comfy chair and sit down to read someone else’s work, someone wonderful like A.L. Kennedy. Ah, she’ll think, I’m just going to enjoy a good read. She’ll crack a spine and read two pages and, zoom, she’s back in her office waking up her laptop.

She’s had this experience over and over, but it’s only lately that she’s learned to accept it. Like most of us she’s internalized the usual ideas about responsibility and having a positive work ethic and keeping her nose to the grindstone, and so she’ll sit at that keyboard beating herself up hour after hour before she’ll allow herself to head for the couch or the comfy chair. This is not a bad thing; in fact, it turns out that the frustration stage—impasse, disappointment, losing the fight with the problem—is an essential part of the process. There’s no such thing as a free insight.

If diversionary strategies have helped my author relax her brain to beneficial effect, they ought to work for me too. However, I am not L, and I am not so fond of physical activity as she is. For instance, I do not have a favourite bicycle pump. I do not own a pair of running shorts. I could try one of her alternative strategies for generating alpha waves. Excuse me, there’s a couch in the other room.

Mentioned in this post: Jonah Lehrer; Imagine: How Creativity Works; frustration and the creative process; A.L. Kennedy; Meewasin Trail

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