Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mona in the Desert: a possible novel's first page

I am sick of Hamlet (I wrote to a friend, another novelist). I want to write about a woman who abandons her car in the middle of the Arizona desert and walks along the road wearing heels and a tight sleeveless blue dress and big sunglasses as she smokes a cigarette and in her handbag with the cigarettes and lighter there's something else, something dangerous--not necessarily a gun--and there's someone waiting for her to show up in the car somewhere, maybe Phoenix or maybe elsewhere, but she's not going to ever show up even though there's nothing wrong with the car; she's tired of driving and she doesn't want to meet whoever is waiting for her (it's some man, of course); she's just going to walk and she doesn't want anyone to stop and offer her a ride though men will stop and offer her rides, of course, because she's pretty and she's wearing that blue dress which is silvery gray when the sun hits it just right, the shimmering sway of her walk visible for a mile down the highway.

It took me almost a year to realize that the woman I was writing my friend about is my aunt Mona, and that what I wanted was to tell the story of Mona being courted by the man who became her first husband, Roberto. The Arizona desert is not part of Mona's story, nor I think is the abandoned car at the side of the highway. Aunt Mona is no longer available to confirm or deny the specifics of the tale, but I'm certain she was never in Arizona and more importantly that she never owned a tight shiny dress of blue silk that turned silver in the sun. I remember my aunt wearing white cotton blouses that buttoned up the front to high forbidding collars, and full skirts in drab grays, probably always of wool no matter the weather. She was a thin, nervous woman but she never perspired even on the hottest days of the year. I am making that up; I only saw Aunt Mona during the fall and winter, during the holiday season. In the summer she may have worn a bikini and shone with sweat, sitting on the back steps of that hideous two-story rental house, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from cans. It's possible, for there is of course a great deal I don't know about most of the people I know. The Mona I remember forever wore her hair yanked back hard into a severe and unflattering ponytail. She did smoke cigarettes. That's something I'm sure I remember. Other details will be more of a problem, for I am no longer young, Mona is gone and my memory has never been very accurate. My imagination has always had a stronger grip on me than has any fidelity to facts, and I am prone to believe amusing and colorful stories that never actually happened. For example, ever since I wrote that letter to my friend about a possible story (I was writing a book about misreadings of Shakespeare at the time), I've begun to believe that Aunt Mona actually did abandon a car on an Arizona roadside and was, back in 1950 or so, quite the looker in her fashionable clothes. This imagined Mona O'Hurleighy has so caught my attention that she is forever standing between me and the embittered, thrice-divorced Mona O'Hurleighy I actually knew. I will press on anyway.

16 comments:

  1. Scott! I really love this! All of it! I like the opening. I like the timing of the parenthetical about the man. I like how it's looping back and forth from the narrator's reality and imagination and the way it plays with your real reality. And I love how it is all affecting everything else into a beautiful slop from which the story will arise. Wow!

    By the by, I've been reading all of your other posts steadily, but I haven't had the mental energy to reply. But things are slower today. Yay! And I've been writing actual fiction for three days in a row. Yay!

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  2. The first paragraph is from an actual email I wrote to you about two years ago. You were revising "Bread" at the time. I don't remember what I was working on. Revisions to Horatio, I'm guessing.

    Thanks for loving this! Nabokov, Beckett, Sebald and Chekhov are playing croquet in my imagination. I might be in there somewhere, too, holding a mallet and waiting for my turn. Anyway, this is probably going to be that novella I have promised to write for a couple of years. I think I'll write it while I'm doing all my research for the Haydn book and making myself ignore Go Home, Miss America. I think it'll be a quick one. I'll bet I've got it written by Christmas. 50,000 words or so. Unpublishable but amusing! I may have copies printed in luxurious cloth bindings to mail out as gifts to a select few. We shall see, Doctor Malasarn. I have most of the first chapter already written.

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  3. That's so very cool. It makes me feel special!

    The thing I'm working on now was intended to be a Jhumpa Lahiri-esque short story, but as I'm getting it out, I'm thinking it might be a novella as well. I'm realizing that I'm not having to concentrate so much on coherency anymore--either because I'm better at it or because it matters less to me. As I'm writing the story, I'm paying much more attention to pushing the dramatics and developing characters. I'm getting better, Bailey!

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  4. Here's my newest epiphany: Story is whatever I say it is. I'm running with that one. It's all about pushing the drama and developing the characters. Character is really all that matters. If you focus on character, all the other aspects of art (style, theme, form, et cetera) will fall into place as if by magic. In my novella, while telling the story (maybe) of my aunt's courtship, I will talk about everything else but it will all (I think) hang together because all I'll really be talking about is how bad my memory is. So between the two poles of the story (my fictional Aunt Mona and her first husband Roberto; and my inability to recognize what I really remember versus what I only imagine is true) I have the constraints I require to create a unified narrative. Blah blah blah. Are you still working with the story about the university?

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  5. And of course I forgot that the reason I started to talk about my new story and my approach was to say that I'm also working with pen and paper on this one. It felt natural when my focus shifted, as if I am finally in a place where I can pay more attention to details instead of the picture as a whole.

    I think I'm killing the university story. I lost interest in it. I've tried to write about those people for years, and it just never gets very far. The pacing of the events always gets tedious to me. Maybe it's a matter of waiting until my memory is done processing graduate school.

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  6. You're working with pen and paper, and I'm working without an outline! What's happening to the world we knew?

    I think that writing with pen and paper somehow helps focus the attention on the sentences themselves. It also feels like the paragraph becomes a more natural unit of measure. I also like the idea of working within the margins of the physical page itself.

    I assume that a lot of the ideas I'm not writing just now are things I'll be able to use in the future when they've finally made their usefulness clear to me.

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  7. I feel a bit like I'm breaking into a private conversation here, but... you know that sort of booming echo in the back of your heart when you read the first page, and you know you're in for a great read? Or is that just me?

    I REALLY want to read this book.

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  8. Levi, thanks! I really want to write this book. I hope I do. It seems possible.

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  9. Scott, I really like this ... it sucked me right in. I love how much mysteriousness surrounds the character ... or your aunt, I suppose! And how this ties into your thoughts with memory lately. So is this the next book you want to write?

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  10. Michelle, this seems to be the next book I am writing. I never get a choice, you know; I just write whatever I find myself writing!

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  11. Well, just wow. This is fantastic, as usual. Gives me the impetus for a story I've had rattling around in my head for the last couple of years myself, about a woman on a lonely stretch of road, although not necessarily in Arizona, and certainly not dangerous in a slinky blue dress. But she finds soemthing on the road that leads to all kinds of implications.

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  12. Anne, thanks! Go write your damned story now; it's better for it to rattle around on the page than in your head. Hope you and The Child are settling down in the new house.

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  13. Aside from writing a transition across an awkward gap in the first section of the narrative and coming up with a few hundred words of guesswork at the end, I'm about done with the first chapter of this new project. I figure I need to do the same amount of work I've already put in only nine more times, and I'll be finished with the first draft. This novella of epistemology should be a piece of cake. I imagine I'll save all kinds of time by not researching anything. Every bit of my material is already in my head, and if it's not in there I can just make it up.

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  14. I like how stories come to us. It is somewhat like first love. Or like the first tidings of the nth love.

    My honeymoon phase with my current idea has led to a slightly cooled-off period in my novel, but I guess a marriage is a marriage, so I'll stick with it.

    Hope you write this one.

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  15. Yeah, you have to negotiate a long-term relationship with your ideas, hoping you'll stay together for a while.

    I seem to be almost to the end of chapter two already, almost 9000 words by now. So it looks like I'm really going to write this. I keep getting ideas for what could happen with the characters, and I keep adding new characters and timelines so by the time the book ends there will be a couple dozen main characters and it will be 1950 and 1977 and 1962 and 1996 and who knows when else. All at the same time, with the narrator admitting that most of it's all made up but insisting that most of it's all true.

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