Writing is palimpsest. Oftentimes I will reuse pieces of old pieces for new pieces. I will write a story. Years later I will write it again, reusing elements of a different story. Or, I will pick up some neat thing in someone else’s work and try to play with it, transmute it into my own thing. It’s all part of a continuous churn. For instance, last year I was doing translations of Valéry prose poems. I became inhabited by this dude and his voice, then created the best approximation I could manage of his voice in English. That approximation was its own entity, and when I was done translating, I wrote a couple of my own prose poems in that voice. Here is one:
Knowing is unknowing when the page is so covered in scribbles that it is necessary to erase in order to write. At the apex of the day, the sun’s heat whites out my thoughts; if there was a wind I might let it scatter the paper but all is stillness and languor. The weather mirrors my torpor; the words appear and disappear too quickly for me to catch them, only leaving behind a faint disturbance in my body like the radiating wave that is the only evidence of an object having been dropped in a pond. A pebble, an acorn, a thought. A thought light enough might float, like a feather, drifting soundless on the glittering opacity of the surface. But I am weak at such thoughts, I am all weight and slow sinking. I am the remnant bubble that hurries where the water meets air only to vanish—an inaudible pop then nothingness.
On the sprawled papers a cat sleeps, her dark fur warmed by the sun’s caress. Her whiskers twitch; her animal dreams emanate from her like a vapor: blurry images without words, inscrutable to a plodding consciousness that burdens itself with language. I put my hand on her side, on the serene rhythm of her breath, and she rolls, trilling gently, to expose her soft belly for a pet. Loved by both my hand and the noonday kiss of the sun’s beams, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches for her through her dreams. Her eyes, yellow as a lick of flame, closed in trust and pleasure.
Today I was writing a scene in which the protagonist of my novel finally makes contact with the cat she has adopted, a cat who has been slinking around her apartment like a prisoner for days and whom she has been unable to name. I remembered the above prose poem from last year and the scene became the following:
I find her asleep in the middle of the living room carpet, soaking in beams from the noon sun. Her whiskers twitch; I can almost see her animal dreams emanating from her like a vapor—blurry images without words, all movement and feeling. Up until now I have only seen her sleep as a neat little ball tucked in a corner that can only be approached from one direction—floating just beneath consciousness, her eyes popping open at the slightest noise, the white film beneath her lids pulling back fast. But here she is sprawled luxuriously, all slack limbs and serene breathing. Her dark fur looks so soft. I crouch next to her as quietly as I can, not wanting to break her peace but not wanting to leave it alone either. I put my hand on her side, lightly, and feel her heave a deep sigh. Gently I pet her tiny sun-warm body and then—she rolls over, trilling faintly, to expose the white fur on her belly. The surrender is so sweet and so simple, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches her through her dreams. For a long time we are this way; it is my first love touch since the last time Andrei had me in his arms. So sweet and so simple—why are we not always this way?
After a while, her eyes slowly open; I see her recognize me. I hear the final yes in her uninterrupted purr. As the tears pour down my face I decide that she is called, of all things, Miorita.
Repetition yet not, such is all speech.
Now that I have outed myself as an unabashed cat lover, I might as well include a photo of my own two little house lions.
Today I wrote a flash of sex in my novel, just a bitty 200-word scene. Yet I am completely drained, I think I may have to step away from the book for today. I don’t know why this story–especially the sexy parts–is taking so much out of me, like my brain has to make this incandescent effort to extrude a mere paragraph and then it is done. It needs a glass of warm milk and a nap. And a hug.
The novel features a bad, bad man from Romania. Why are evil Eastern European dudes so extremely hot? I must have watched too much Cold War agitprop growing up. Or maybe it’s the accent. Nom nom nom that accent. Anyway, I can tell this guy is going to be great fun to write because I find myself wondering aaaaaah why doesn’t he exist so that I can have sex with him?! (Of course if he existed I would never have sex with him; I always wind up with soft-spoken intellectual types.)
So, like most of America I filed my taxes yesterday and I must say SELF-EMPLOYED TAXES = OW. So much for all the bullshit about how our pioneer nation favors a spirit of independent entrepreneurship. What pisses me off isn’t so much the amount, though the amount is substantial. I wouldn’t be nearly this irritated if my money didn’t go towards bank bailouts and troup surges. I wish I could earmark my tax contribution for our crumbling social safety net and educational systems. And goddamn universal health care, but what kind of crack am I smoking?
Also: if I were some trust fund baby who’d “earned” that money from interest and dividends, I would have gotten to keep a lot more of it. This gets my goat like nobody’s business: our nation likes to pretend that there’s no such thing as social class while ridiculously favoring the idle rich and blatantly screwing the working poor. Seriously, I would walk around humming L’Internationale for a few days except my fury has been soothed by the arrival of the festive purple sneakers I ordered (even though with all the money I coughed up yesterday, I could have purchased about 250 pairs of those suckers). I’m sure Marx would chide me about the weakness of my convictions, but I am no revolutionary. Merely a malcontent wearing new shoes.
So, I am starting a new novel. The hardest part at the beginning is finding a good voice, the voice in which the story needs to be told. There will be starts and stops, lots of frustration. Probably a good dose of gut-wrenching terror, especially since this book wants to be in the first person which I find incredibly uncomfortable. But I don’t care if writing this whole damn thing feels like wearing an itchy sweater, as long as it works in the end.
Something else that is likely to be a challenge is that a lot of this book is going to be about scorching sexual chemistry. There was a bit of that in the last book and there will be more in this one. When sexy prose works, it is really really good. When it doesn’t, it is positively disastrous. Sex is possibly the hardest thing there is to write, one wrong word choice can render a steamy scene totally laughable. While polishing up the last book I had a whole exchange with my editor about the word “cunt.” She had concerns that it would be too jarring for some readers. I wrote back the following:
I kind of avoided naming female genitalia with circumlocutions like “inside her” and stuff like that, but eventually you just have to name the thing you’re talking about. “Vagina” is not hot, it’s too doctor’s office. “Pussy” has the disadvantage of being both too cute and too porny. I decided to go all out and use “cunt,” after all this is not a shy book. But I didn’t just throw it around willy nilly, I saved it for one or two special occasions.
The argument boiled down to: dude, sorry, but this is just a cunt kind of book. And the argument worked, because it was.
Now that I am back at square one with a new novel, I have to ask myself: is this one a cunt kind of book? The narrator is a very stark person, oftentimes unflinching. But she is also very young, and sex is in many ways her softest spot. Figuring out what language she would use, what she would say and not say, is going to tax my skills. Everything has to match up with who she is; the silences have to be just as telling as the graphic detail. At this point I still don’t know what word she would use to talk about her ladyflower (probably not “ladyflower” though), and if I had to guess I would say she herself would have a devil of a time choosing a word that fits her. Part of what I may have to portray with the text is her struggle to find words for an experience so powerful and puzzling, one that is both ineffable and thoroughly embodied. (This is part of the reason why I think first person may kick my ass: having the language still flow while also trying to render its troubles attempting to find a flow… Christ on a cracker, this is the sort of thing that may make me chicken back out into third person!)
One thing at a time though. Before I find out what words she would use to talk about making love, I have to find out what words she would use to talk about her morning commute, her cat, the dreams that wake her up in the middle of the night.
You first came to me one morning long ago, while I was working at the bank. Your voice simply announced, I am not a child of America, and suddenly I felt your presence in my body like a vaporous specter. You were standing where I was standing and performing the same mechanical tasks I was performing but you were not me. You were superimposed over me, like a drawing of a girl overlaying a drawing of a slightly different girl. When I was granted my lunch break I went upstairs into an empty office where I knew there was an abandoned typewriter and spilled out a paragraph or two of your voice.
That year I was the same age as my students are now. That year I fell disastrously in love for the first time. You had a different name then.
You liked to let him paint your face. You liked the feel of the plush brush against your skin; you liked the expectation in his eyes. You laid out your lipsticks for him in a neat row and asked, “what color do you want my mouth?” He picked a plum shade which would shortly be smeared all over him. You didn’t know why it made him hard for you to do this, yet you felt the blood rise to your cheeks to meet the powder blush he was applying there. Pink on pink, impossible to tell the real arousal apart from the cosmetic mimicking it.
When he lined your eyes, your lids didn’t even quiver. Not because you trusted him not to hurt you with the pencil–his hand was, after all, trembling slightly–but because a hurt inflicted by his hand was the best hurt of all.
You came to me again some years later. I wrote a whole novel about you that time. Unfortunately, it was no good. At least, you met him then, the man who liked to paint your face. And you gave me your name, Irina. When I saw how closely it mirrored my own, I laughed, and thought, all right, we’ll go with that then.
My last protagonist, Louise, made mischief with the impish glee one might expect. You are strange; you make mischief with something like grim determination. It must be some kind of Eastern European thing. Whenever I ask you why you do anything, you say, why not? What else is there to do? and I have, of course, nothing to answer.
You are a violinist playing chamber music on the sinking Titanic. You are a thief who steals even when what he pockets has no value. You are a man who still neatly parts his hair and cleans his fingernails on the morning he is to be executed. You are a futile gesture of humanity in the face of oblivion.