Fictional tremors – In my last entry, I started with a writing itch and ended up with a possible seed for a story. I was faced with a dilemma, though: do I stick with my original plan and write a non-fiction story, or do I run with the hook that popped into my mind at the last minute? I asked you, my readers, for your opinions, and you answered. True, some of you thought I was a loon for even asking the question. Others pointed out that no one has ever read the first draft of the “Golf Story,” and thus didn’t have any frame of reference by which to judge the brief snippet of my second attempt. Everyone, though, felt that I should run with the hook (as opposed to running with the scissors, which is never a good idea). Two readers, both writers whose opinions I respect, said they were intrigued by the Andy character, which I find very encouraging. All in all, the replies I received have helped me decide to do what I guess I really wanted to do all along—grab the tiny little thread sticking out of my carefully woven “reality” and run with it until I am left with a glorious, glimmering pile of fictional thread.
After writing that last entry, I went back to take another look at my first draft of the golf story—my first look in over half a year. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. Not that it will ever see the light of day anyway, but still, it was comforting to see that it wasn’t the pile of refuse that my imagination and memory had convinced me it was. This original version focused on the narrator’s relationship with another character, and Andy made only a brief cameo to utter his “golf is a disease” line (without elaborating, I might add) and then disappear again. I made no effort to describe him at all—he was really just a device in a flashback whose purpose was to elaborate on the narrator’s present experience.
I suppose the main reason that the draft turned out that way was that the story was a fictional “day in the life” of our intrepid narrator, and thus naturally in medias res. With the second draft, my intention was to tell the story more or less as it happened, starting at the beginning. Since Andy was the one who got me the job it seemed only natural to start with him, and since he was the first main character introduced I spent more time developing him (not much more, to be honest, but anything is better than nothing). The snippet I posted with my last entry ends at the hook, which is the point at which I realized I was straying from the Truth™. While it may have been the point that I realized it, it wasn’t the point at which it actually started.
I suppose one could say that the point at which I began to stray from the Truth™ was when I wrote the words, “During my first few years of university....” That is, once I decided to write about it, it automatically became something else. But let’s put that argument aside for now and pretend that it is possible to record something as it actually happened. In that case, my straying from the path began with the words, “We were out on the course one day shortly after I started the job....” Actually, I did not hear the “golf is a disease” line until after I had been working at the golf course for a while. But I was talking about Andy and I wanted to get to what was for me his defining utterance, so I took a little liberty with the timeline and started the snowball rolling down the hill.
Snowball effect, ripple effect, butterfly effect—call it what you will, it applies to fiction just as it does to real life. At this point I’d like to steal some words from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—the only book on writing I own, purchased when I was a Creative Writing major, mainly because the author once taught at my university and I was curious. I’m sure it’s been said many times, but Gardner did a good job of making the point and a better job than I could do:
“Every slightest change the writer makes in the character’s background and experience must have subtle repercussions. ... Subtle details change characters’ lives in ways too complex for the conscious mind to grasp, though we nevertheless grasp them. ... As in the universe every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has [an] effect on every other, so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet” (John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, p. 46).
By moving the “golf is a disease” line up in the timeline, I pinched the fabric of time and changed everything. In real life, when I heard that line I reacted with a mixture of amusement and cynicism. Like I said above, I had already been working on the golf course for a while, and I immediately knew what Andy was talking about. By changing the timeline, though, my naïve narrator reacted to the statement not with a knowing smirk but with raised eyebrows and a racing imagination. I can’t help but wonder if that is how I would have reacted in that situation, or if it was something else that caused me to write the fateful line, “This was my cancer ward, and these were my patients.” All I know is that it seemed like a natural progression of the story at the time.
It’s really a moot point, I guess, but I cannot tell you how surprised I was at the narrator’s reaction. You have to understand that, at the time, I was still operating under the illusion that I was the narrator, and it absolutely floored me that his reaction was antithetical to my actual, “historical” reaction. In reality, I despised most of the golfers on the course (but not all of them), yet here my narrator was not only showing them compassion, but comparing them to a ward of terminally ill people. Maybe this means more to me because it calls to mind my visit to a township hospital in South Africa, where I walked through a ward of terminally ill children—most of them dying of AIDS. That experience affected me greatly, and I was shocked that my narrator would reach into my subconscious for that image and apply it to—of all people—golfers. It was almost sacrilegious, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
I suppose that’s the real reason I stopped where I did, despite what I may have said in a certain e-mail to a certain reader. And I guess that shock is what made me waver and pose the question to my readers. I didn’t actually realize that until now, as I am writing this, but it does make sense. At least, it makes sense to me—I’m not sure if it will make sense to anyone else. Subconscious imagery aside, in terms of the actual telling of the story, it meant that a new world had suddenly opened up before me. I was faced with an alien narrator who would react differently to everything that had happened to me, even if I were to script events in the exact sequence they actually happened. I honestly did not know what to do next. The genius of fiction had jumped out from behind the door and scared the pants off of me, and now I was just trying to find my pants again so I wouldn’t have to wander around the rest of the story in my boxers. Sorry, I guess that metaphor got away from me.
In a sense, every writer plays God when he or she writes a story. We play with our worlds as omnipotent deities ruling over all. At least that’s the way it should be, right? After all, an author should be able to do whatever he or she wants with his or her story. To an extent that is true, but every writer will attest that there are times when the story seems to have a life of its own—when the story takes off like a startled racehorse and all you can do is hang on and hope you don’t get thrown off before it’s all over. We have a name for this mad frenzy of creative energy, taken from Greek mythology—the Muse. But the Muse is just a literary expression for something that is entirely an internal operation—fiction requires the participation of the subconscious mind just as much as the conscious mind, and we externalize this operation of the subconscious mind because it’s hard to believe that we are actually doing the writing.
I’ve now had sufficient time to get over the shock of my subconscious mind so rudely corralling my story in a direction I had no intention of going, and I know that I really have no choice but to go with the flow. The story (or, more precisely, its possibilities) have taken hold of my imagination and refuse to let go. I will be working on the story whenever I get the chance, but I have plenty of other things going on right now as well, so it may be a while before we see a completed draft. In the meantime, you can be sure that I will be posting the occasional entry full of meta-writing, such as the one you just finished reading. I hope you’ll stick around for the end result.