How The Idea Became The Story: Part One
Tuesday, 5 September 2017
It's surprisingly hard for me to remember the process by which an idea becomes a book. Maybe if I was the kind of author who wrote a lot of notes while I am figuring things out it would be easier. But I've never been a note taker. I envy writers who walk around with little notebooks making striking, original observations about the world. (I have tried to do that but I'm not a very observant person. For example, I once used to hire a desk in a co-working space next to an anatomist. After I'd been working there for about a month I noticed that she had brought in a full-sized human skeleton to work from. I remarked on our new office mate, and she told me that it had been there the entire time. How does such an unobservant person become a writer? I really have no idea.) I always try taking notes but I rarely actually use them. For this book I had the bright idea that I wanted to think in a non-linear way so I decided to write my notes on index cards and put them all in a box. I have that box in my desk and since I started writing the book I have never opened it or looked at one single card. Hang on, I am going to get it and open it now and pick out a card at random. Let's see.........
"So many Shakespeare plays feature someone in disguise. In a way, Billy himself is in disguise without knowing it."
Wow. How did I manage to write this book without the help of such incredible insights?
Actually it is quite interesting to delve into there because it's full of things like "Who is Zannah's father?" (a question I could better answer if I could remember who Zannah was) and "maybe his mother is a member of an illegal cloning circle" (she isn't) and "maybe they can track down his daughter - they might want to harvest her eggs" (which is actually the plot of Orphan Black.)
The point is this. There is a thing swirling around my head which is the idea, which gradually takes on more and more bits of idea and eventually congeals like candyfloss, and then there is me trying to take that candyfloss and stick it to the page, which is writing, and it's impossible. Writing is the attempt to make words out of candyfloss? Hmm. I'm going to turn to Ann Patchett, who described it better:
"For me it's like this. I make up a novel in my head... This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling... The book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in the Notre Dame... It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
"And so I do.. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it... Everything that was beautiful about this living thing - all the color, the light and movement - is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book."
This is the best description of writing a novel that I have ever read. (It's from Ann's 'This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage' which I cannot recommend highly enough, along with all her other books. I call her Ann, though we don't know each other and it would be more respectful to say Patchett, because I feel so close to her writing that she is a friend to my SOUL.) You think it's going to be one thing, and it turns out to be a completely different thing, and you hate it, and you're miserable, and then you learn to love it again, not for what it was supposed to be, but for what it is.
In the case of Oh, I Do Like To Be... what it was supposed to be was an epic life story of a man born to be a genius, from his precocious childhood days, to the promising years in which his writing talent bloomed, to the cataclysmic discovery of the secret of his cloned heritage, a period of grandiosity and fame, followed by disillusionment, the questioning of everything he believed to be true about himself, the loss of identity, suicidal ideation, To Be Or Not To Be, then the gradual reassembling of his psyche, ending with his quiet re-embracing of his writer self, perhaps only ever to be expressed in the letter to his daughter who is reading these pages right now. Amazing.
And the actual book? It all takes place in one day. There's a lot of ice cream in it, and someone gets into a fight with a traffic warden.
I'm sorry. I just don't know how it happened.
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