I work in bits and pieces, in fragments. In my writing folder, I have a subcategory entitled “Tidbits”: little scraps and slivers of prose that don’t fit anywhere in particular. Sometimes they end up in poems, sometimes in pieces on which I am already working. Sometimes they grow into full-length stories, though that’s rare. Sometimes the tidbit is an entire scene–two characters interacting, a tight, vivid paragraph giving background on a person or place who does not yet exist–other times it’s a visual image, maybe only a few words long. This isn’t such a bad thing in and of itself, but for me, it’s a major hump to get from those little pieces to a full story. Pretty images that sort of fall out of my brain and onto a note-card are easy; creating a solid, good story from those images is incredibly challenging.
When I was a child, we had a triangular prism that lived on a bookshelf in our farm-themed computer room, in front of my mother’s Danielle Steele novels. I used to hold it against my eyes and walk around the house, moving slowly from dark hallway to bright kitchen to living room with big, galumphing steps. The light refracted in such a way that it made it appear that the floor was constantly curving away from me, and I felt like a giant walking the circumference of a small and distant planet. (Needless to say, I never even attempted to climb the stairs while doing this, for fear that I would lose my balance and break my neck.) If I did this for too long, my stomach would lurch and my esophagus twitch like I was going to vomit, and when I took the prism away from my face everything sort of spun for a moment, the floor would be flat and ordinary before me, and I felt like I’d shrunk back to an ordinary size. I had not thought about this game in years, until a few months ago when I visited a bookstore in Austin and stumbled across a prism identical to the one from my youth. The experience of staggering around my childhood home with the plastic edge pressed hard against the bridge of my freckled nose came back to me suddenly, vividly, and I wanted to put it into something, or make something out of it. I wrote it down on an index card and later committed it to the “Tidbits” file. I’ve come back across it several times since then, but if it’s part of a story, the story is still unwritten.
I used to blame this fragmented style on the fact that I was either in school full-time (I was a photography major, and spent a lot of time in darkrooms making prints of nudes while fixer killed my olfactory receptors) or working full-time, and so it was hard to sit down and work on anything for any significant period of time. But even when I’ve had downtime–time to just work on my writing and nothing else–it still comes out in these tiny pieces. (That being said, I’m going to be really interested to see if this is still the case when I’m in Iowa City and my life is more or less revolving around my work.)
One of the hardest things I’ve had to come to grips with as a writer is the fact that this is my process. I used to wish that stories would burst out of my forehead, fully formed and swinging large weapons, but that is not how it happens–at least not for me. It takes a hell of a lot of discipline to work these tidbits into a story, but I guess that’s my burden. I need to accept it, and work with it.
I once told a friend of mine about how frustrating this is, how the fragments and images are amazing but often feel insufficient and useless. She told me that The Sound and the Fury came to Faulkner came to him in one visceral image of a girl climbing a tree and having her brothers look up from below at her grass-stained underwear. I wonder if he felt this aggravated trying to work a novel out from that image–an image that, if he’s anything like me, knocked around his head loudly and beautifully as he tried to write a story that did it justice.
I hope he did.