I was having a problem with my story. For one thing it had a terrible title, a title meant to imply that not only was it my character’s last day in Paris, but the final day of her marriage. Which wasn’t the point of the story. The point was not her marriage. It was the man on the bicycle. It was the women at the next table with their elaborate shoes. I kept stripping the story down. I put every word on trial. And then, finally, I took out my favorite part, my clever part, and it fell into place.
I’ve been thinking about this one story since I was 22 years old, but I never wrote it before. Okay, I wrote a nonfiction version. I wrote a fictional third person version, told as a report. I gave it up. And then Kerry showed us the short story, Axolotl, by Julio Cortázar. And Margery said what Cortázar did, his method, was to take a subject and stick with it, follow it, bore into it. I do this sometimes without thinking, when the unconscious takes over. We all do it, I guess, when we let ourselves go. Anyway. I decided to write the story this way. To begin and follow it. If I started to veer, to get in my head, to intellectualize or plan or worry, I’d recall the Axolotl, a creature that defies thought. And so, finally, I wrote the story. Hooray.
Some stories take such patience.
This week my students are writing down their dreams. We are trying to access the unconsciousness. I have not remembered a single dream since I’ve made this announcement. Oh, rebellious unconscious mind. Axolotl.
We went looking for a village of witches. We passed a man with a machete. A donkey. A sign said go back this is an active volcano but nobody went back. People put up signs that said viva el revolultion which we could read even though our Spanish is bad. Masks hung on walls, on fences, and on houses. We passed sugar cane fields. A man walked along the road with a straw hat on his head and a laptop over his shoulder. We drove into the village of witches but the witches were invisible. There was no sound anywhere. In the afternoon, we drove to Comala. Our house looked out on the volcano. It was Christmastime. We could hear music and dancing and the sounds of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone. Someone tied a donkey to a tree outside our window and it never stopped braying. My husband made food and set it on the table. I lay in bed for three days and nights. Bells and and music, horses’ hooves on the cobblestone, the sound of a donkey tied to a tree. My husband made food but I didn’t eat. Downstairs there were flowers. Outside a hundred year old woman sat hunched in the yard with three small girls in white dresses at her feet. Downstairs a woman practiced Spanish. Outside the men played soccer they rode horses with bells Pedro Páramo wandered the streets the church bells rang the music played it was Christmas and viva el revolultion.
I’ve assigned Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid because we’re looking at the way people use their own lives for material. Years back when I read that piece, I sympathized with the daughter, but now I sympathize with the mother which is not what Kinkaid intents, I think. I assigned it because we’re talking about images, the way we use images to create little movies in our readers’ minds. Girl is simply image after image. Images of Antigua. When I read Girl, I see Antigua. I see the little girls in their blue skirts and white blouses, walking past our house in St. John’s with school books under their arms. Today I’ll talk a little about Antigua only getting its independence from Great Britain in 1980, but I don’t think I’ll mention the fact that Chuck and I were there then. That Chuck helped the opposition party set up a printing press. That we were arrested and deported. I told Chuck last night that sometimes when I talk about my life I feel like I’m making stuff up.
The man in the picture above is the press operator.
I write fiction, but decided instead of doing what I’ve been doing for the past few decades and sort of know how to do, I’d write a screenplay for my MFA thesis. I wanted to do something new, I said, pretending I don’t realize that every piece of writing requires something new. I wanted to watch more movies. Something school has put a damper on. I wanted to study with Jon Lewis. Also, screenwriting directly addresses my weaknesses as a writer. I am an interior writer. I write thoughts, feelings, obsessions. I write interior space. You can’t do this in a movie. You have to create setting and move characters around in it. Appallingly, characters in movies don’t think at all. They do stuff. And the pacing is completely different. I learned writing by writing. I learned by reading. It’s much harder to get at a screenplay through watching a movie. Plus, I always forget I’m watching. I tell myself to notice, but I get caught in the dream and forget.
I read a Facebook post by a guy from Europe about the way Americans ride our bikes. Fast and joyless, like we are in race. We do this for no reason, without thinking, because hurrying is automatic, it’s what we do. We turn things into a race, into a chore, a goal, into what’s good for us, into self-improvement. So after that FB post, I changed. Now I leave earlier. I go slow. I don’t think about burning calories or improving my muscle tone. I let everybody pass me. For a little while each day I look at my neighbors’ gardens, the trees turning colors, kids at the park, the sky. I am not racing. I am not improving myself. I am riding my bike.
It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. I was looking for images for the Pinterest board I’ve created around my latest manuscript. I collect images for story ideas. I collect images around my books. In this latest as yet unpublished book my character Mavis “was a secret animist” as a child. I searched images for “animist” and found a stunning picture of a little girl, the perfect picture, the child’s face, the background, tone: all perfect. So I added it to my board. It’s the image I want but it is also the face of a real child. Her name—I go back to read—is Abi Gul. She is 7 years old and Kalash, from Rumbur Valley, Pakistan. For eleven years her father fought in Pakistani courts to keep their valley from being logged. Three years ago her father was murdered. For the Kalash the trees are sacred. Animists: those who believe “the natural world is inhabited by spirits who nurture or destroy in accordance to the respect they are shown.” Which brings us back to the child, Abi Gul, and the question of ownership and privacy, of using the sacred things of the world, including the face of a child, for own purposes. I don’t have an answer, but at least I can include here this website: Blue Earth, http://www.blueearth.org/blog/?p=1509 And look at her face. All the things in it.