An aside: Writing fiction is like slipping into a home and taking things— hushes, aromas, and laughter, for instance. Unless you’re good at it—like, acrobatic cat burglar good—you never quite know how to get in and you never escape unnoticed. Your presence is a loud and clanging reminder that you’ve inserted yourself into a space where you don’t belong.
To write well is to avoid notice. But how? Do you start at the back door or the front? Should you try the basement window? These are not naive times; there will be no spare key under flowerpot or welcome mat. Your own your own. Find yourself some tools:—a hairpin, a credit card, a crowbar—and get to breaking and entering.
But once you’re in, however you manage it, you can’t discard your stealth. You’ll need it to capture the awkwardness at the dinner table, to pocket the longing in the teenager’s bedroom, to siphon the mother’s resentment-for later, literary use.
# # #
It always took Nine about five false starts before she found the right entryway for any of her stories. She was always tempted to start in the middle, a conjunction igniting her first sentence: “And then we were silent,” she’d type, or “But Bessie wasn’t ready.” This never worked. A novel wasn’t an episode of Lost, after all, and Nine had little patience for flashbacks. Beginning at the beginning seemed too obvious; she didn’t believe the hype about Occam’s razor. And starting at the end posed many problems similar to attempting an arc in medias res.
Mind you, Nine didn’t arrive at this kind of indecision—paralyzing indecision, the kind that renders you immobile as deadlines march doggedly on, as merciless as Gestapo—on her own. She’d gone into a great deal of student loan debt to learn this brand of self-doubt. She’d sat, for two years, in a series of crumbling Tudor cottages, taking courses led either by wizened codgers hard-pressed to find anyone’s work impressive anymore or by the young, hip, and newly published (their skin as intricately inked as atlases, their best advice: besot your work with casual sex and obscenity).
But now that Nine she was unconscious, she was also un-self-conscious. Without any of her customary hemming and hawing, she had found herself already in. Whole paragraphs materialized, unaided. Her clever turns of phrase (“The wind is a sieve,” indeed.) were ambling along on a blank mental slate reserved, it seemed, for precisely these kinds of health crises.
Nine could hardly stand it, prolific at last! Eloquent self-narrative was emerging with legendary swiftness. Just look at that: “tectonic shift!” Were she awake, she would’ve stricken through that phrase and written, “Inaccessible reference?” Not here. Here, in her coma, every phrase worked; though, irony of delicious ironies, here, in her coma, there was no one to read them.