Polar Bear Club
I have to start a new book soon, a novel. Do I fear I have forgotten how to write fiction after working on a memoir for nearly two years? Perhaps. Have I felt occasionally queasy in recent weeks thinking I will have to re-learn how to write again? For sure.
But one thing I have learned is to embrace the fear that comes with starting something new. I always think about those people who go to Coney Island on New Year’s Day when it’s fucking freezing out and they just take off all their clothes and run into the water. You can’t think about it too much, you just have to go for it. Don’t psych yourself out. It’s going to sting no matter what — but you’ll feel great afterwards.
I will be starting a book from scratch: not one page is typed, just a few ideas kicking around in my head, some handwritten notes, this sort of vaguely plump feeling in my brain whenever I think about the characters, where they are, this hazy notion of their conflicts, external and internal both.
All women characters, of course. It always starts with the women.
But I’ve transformed the nerves into enthusiasm for the most part. My approach now is: “I get to write a novel” versus “I have to write a novel.” And I’ve been circling two ideas, a novel that seems new and unfamiliar and one that seems up close, warm, and comfortable, so I’m going to try and write them both.
This weekend I read Lauren Groff’s brilliantly structured, excellent new novella in The New Yorker and it got me thinking about how we can set things up for the reader in the first act, whether it’s obvious or not at the time to them.
We can set the reader up with specific plot points, or we can set them up for a reading experience through style or language. We can set them up with rich characters they can connect with the entire story, or who might just make a brief appearance in the beginning only to show up later in the book in an important way.
Or we can set the reader up with objects we put in a room, a notebook, a piece of jewelry, a painting, a letter, a knife, anything at all. I always loved playing “Clue” as a child, my mind maneuvering through all the possibilities of just one candlestick. An object can quickly become a landmine to be stepped upon or a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off at any moment.
All of these things are potentially equally important but it’s hard to focus on all of them at once. I always try to lean into whatever is speaking to me most strongly, diving into my my most beloved and comfortable areas of interest, which, more often than not, is a character’s backstory and emotional conflict. Or, when all else fails, what they feel like eating or drinking in the moment. (I save the sex scenes for later.)
But this time around I’ve been trying something different: focusing on the objects. For both possible books I sat down and made a list of things I saw in the space where the two stories begin for me. I made them hopefully intriguing enough that a character might want to explore them further immediately or file their appearance away for later contemplation. Just a brief glimpse in time of that which occupies the space. Clues I’m leaving for myself to be explored in the future.
I’m not afraid of getting the objects wrong because I can always throw them away. I’m not afraid of writing myself into a corner because I’m the who constructs the corners and can tear them down, too. I’m not afraid of failing because I’m only just beginning. I’m not afraid of the sting of the cold because I won’t die from it, I’ll just feel something, and I’m not afraid to feel something.
Have you been strategizing how you’re going to approach #1000wordsofsummer? Have you made any lists, brainstormed any ideas? Can you channel any fears or nerves into excitement?
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support VOTE NOLA.