book club, Fiction, poetry, The Novelist

The Novelist: Where Fiction Begins

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the novelist fiction

I can’t get past Frankenstein.

So, good. That’s my “anywhere.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Twice in The Novelist, a character quotes L.L. Barkat (yes, when you write your novel, you can have your characters quote you too). In the first, poet and confidant James Cummins tells Laura, “Start anywhere. Write anything. Like that Barkat woman says, ‘Just begin.’”

Later, Laura says it herself, perhaps even unwittingly, telling Geoffrey how she writes her poetry: “‘I start anywhere,’ she’d said, which was mostly true. The truer truth was that she always began with an emotion–sorrow, desire, love, anger.”

While there may be no immediate connection, I find it curious that in both cases, Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein enters the conversation shortly after the exhortation to “start anywhere.”

I started this article with an emotion: a small measure of sadness. I can’t say whether Frankenstein asked for that or answered it. But the two are stitched together no less than the laceration on Boris Karloff’s massive forehead.

The inevitable tumult involved in Dr. Frankenstein’s creation rings monstrously true, and I suppose that can oft be so for writing as well as grim laboratory experiments by mad geniuses. Consider this scene from my favorite iteration of Shelley’s story, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, with Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle.

Maybe the real problem wasn’t that she had nothing to write about, but that she had too much. Maybe she wasn’t afraid of her finiteness after all, but rather Infinity and how it called her to begin somewhere, anywhere. To begin might be an acceptance that indeed she was some kind of creator, with tremendous powers. It might mean taking people’s lives into her hands–her own life, her friends’, even her father’s or mother’s. And maybe she was afraid they would think she had animated a wandering Frankenstein no one wanted to hold.

It seemed it would be easier for me to just lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling again than to admit a vague, unarticulated sadness and claim that as the starting point. ”Start anywhere” sounds simple enough, but when the place where one starts is delineated by mild grief and Frankenstein, simplicity stops at Laura’s back porch. It’s a gamble when you don’t know where “anywhere” will lead. And in the end, the creative act can be misunderstood; the creation seen for something other than what it is.

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We’ve been reading The Novelist: a novella, by L.L. Barkat, together over the past few weeks. We’d love to hear what you’re thinking about the story, about the characters, even about the process of writing fiction. Perhaps you’d share your thoughts from some of the third set of questions from the reader-crafted discussion guide

  1. Consider the appearance of the letter V. Does it add anything to the story? If so, what?
  2. Why do you think Laura reads the Adrienne Rich poems to Geoffrey? Do you see her in the specific lines she chooses to share? If so, how?
  3. Discuss some of the main images in the story: tea; the tea basket, screen door, sieves; colors; natural items like trees, shells, moths; temperature; cups; gateways like doors, the bridge, “keys.”
  4. What do the various images reveal about the main character, Laura? About the writing process?
  5. Consider the notions of fiction and truth used in the novel. What scenes explore it most deeply? What conclusions do you draw from such scenes?
  6. Do Laura’s poems serve the story? Does the story serve Laura’s poems? What would we lose if either the poems or the story were removed?

Read the first week’s or second week’s discussion, or download the discussion guide.

Don’t have the book yet? Read the first three chapters for free. (But be careful. You’ll be hooked.)

Buy The Novelist: a novella:

 

Photo by Fellowship of the Rich. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Lyla Willingham Lindquist.

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Your Comments

25 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    “Claim that as the starting point.”

    This really is a huge effort sometimes. And, perhaps, is the source of much “writer’s block.”

    We aren’t blocked so much as bound. Unable to open our arms to what we know we need to embrace, if only a very little, to get going.

    Yeah. I get that. Who knows where the embrace will lead?

    (Poignant video, btw. Perfect :) )

    • One of my all-time favorite movie scenes. :)

      Timing figures. Sometimes, it isn’t the right time to open to a thing. Sometimes it is.

      • L. L. Barkat says:

        I agree. I’ve advised writers that way before. Coming to mind is a writer who wanted to do a book about anorexia, but she wasn’t ready to do that yet.

        I mean, she was thinking, and that was important. And she was writing privately, and that was important too. But she was still too raw to do anything with it that would be good for a public work. It would have been more of a “spill” than something she could craft with a measure of skill.

        Not sure if that makes sense.

        What else makes timing figure?

  2. Every beginning should go somewhere before it ends.

    • Perfect, Maureen.

      The edited version of this article was more about endings as beginnings and beginnings as endings. The writer didn’t get that job done so the beginning went somewhere else instead.

      But it does make me smile that you went to the ending. :)

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      say more, Maureen?

      • Lao Tzu says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

        To start is to take but the first step; it’s just where you are. You stay there until you take another, which shows you that you can take another. The point is not to be so paralyzed as not to take any step at all.

        Taking another and then another step lets you to at least look back and see if progress is being made or another way opens up or another perspective might be considered or a new voice heard or maybe you decide to scratch it all and begin again because you missed what was right in front of you.

        Sometimes you have to take many steps and go all the way to the end only to realize you have to go back to the beginning and start all over. But that’s ok. You haven’t failed. Implicit in the starting over is the step-taking. It’s the step-taking that makes the task manageable.

        The painter Diebenkorn liked to say that the way he became unblocked was by putting the first mark (first brush stroke) to canvas, that until he did that he couldn’t paint.

        For the writer who’s blocked, it might be writing the first word or the first sentence or the first paragraph or the first chapter, or so on.

        • “You stay there until you take another, which shows you that you can take another.”

          I really like that. The assurance of the previous step.

          There’s this thing we do perceptually (in so many things and not just writing or creating), where we will use the last step as the baseline. So steps seem very small because each was taken, I think, from point zero. But if I look back at the 10 steps before that, I’m not at zero, I’m at 10, or maybe some other number because I took a step back here and there along the way.

          (That discussion works better when I’m sitting across from you at a table and I can draw out the spectrum on a napkin. :) )

  3. Donna says:

    Ah Maureen…. One step … SO true! I am going to take a stab at this and hope it’s not just rambling…

    This has me thinking of the vital first step and of danger all at once. Thinking this one step and this Frankenstein go perfectly together in this context. The first step is okeedokey when one is stepping onto on to concrete… it’s the first step onto an ice pond with “NO SKATING” signs posted that can paralyze. Yup. Some steps are easier than others.

    I used to think I was blocked… then I showed up in someone’s office with my laptop containing hundreds and hundreds of files (thousands, actually) – poetry, essays, photos and I announced “I’M BLOCKED!” and she said, pointing to the laptop, “I don’t know exactly what you are, but I don’t think it’s blocked”. She was right, of course. Blocked wasn’t exactly it. I wonder how many of us are sitting on mountains of work (frozen lakes filled with work?) and calling ourselves blocked when really what we are is afraid. Afraid of what? Why Frankenstein of course!!! Laura knew this, didn’t she? Laura knew she had stories, but she was afraid of dancing onto the ice with Frankenstein. He’s a heavy dude.

    The first step in monster creation is a risk – what will it become? I never thought about it this way before, but I suppose writers struggle with the monsters who have taken form and the ones yet to be created (and Heaven only knows (perhaps) which are yet to be created and that they may just be the monster that ate Manhattan… or life as we know it but you get the picture).

    And then there is that dang sign posted that says NO SKATING … that’s another paralysis- this breaking the rules thing. I know some people LIVE to break the rules… I want summa that. ;) My hands are out and I am reaching for it – I figure if I maintain this stance then what I need will fill them.

    And then there is that 2 seconds of film in the clip (44/45) where Gene Wilder mouths the words “I love HIM” about the monster, but not TO the monster. He created his masterpiece and there it is on stage, out there for the whole world to see but he doesn’t want the monster to know of his love. The world can know, but the monster cannot. Why? Why is that? Is it maybe because proclaiming love comes with a high cost and if things went wrong down the road he wouldn’t have the heart to pull the plug and live with himself at the same time? He has created the monster, and now he hides from it, in a sense. Who is he protecting? The monster (his work)? Or himself? Maybe both.

    The thing is, even fiction has to come from somewhere real, and that stops me, at the edge of the pond, dead in my tracks.

    Lyla… hmmmm… wow. I love how you approached this!

    • Donna says:

      Whoops I got a little carried away!

    • Amazing the amount of power we give to those creations, isn’t it? Sometimes deserved, maybe sometimes not. They are powerful, of course, but perhaps not as powerful as the actual process of creating.

      I remember the scene from YF where Dr. Frankenstein has thrown himself across the chest of his monster and is screaming into the lightning flashes, “Give my creation Life!” If that movie could make me cry, that would be one of the moments.

      So why do you think a person may not want to acknowledge his love for what he’s made?

      • Donna says:

        How did I know you would ask me this question? After many attempts to answer I come to the most simple answer: it’s a great defense mechanism. I suppose that’s what I was thinking when I wrote that. Work is work. If I look at the things that I do that are easy to like (as in not much to take offense to, be hurt by, argue with, or challenge) I don’t much mind if people known that they mean something to me…that I love them. BUT if my work is a monster??? There is a measure of safety in detachment I suppose… no… I know.

        • Donna says:

          LOL! OMG… see why TWITTER is so GOOD for me? Forces me to 140 characters!

        • There are two sides of this (at least), and that’s our relationship with what we create, and other people’s relationship with it.

          Probably because of the words “perverse monstrosity” in the title, made me think of this article L.L. wrote for The Curator a couple of years ago. Of course, “perverse monstrosity” is linked to “beautiful art.”

          • Donna says:

            Yes… at least two. I kept waffling between the two and gave up. Trying to find a common ground I landed on defense mechanism, but there is something to protection of the creation, too. It’s complex, isn’t it? Looking forward to reading LLs piece – thank you.

          • Donna says:

            Ah, yes exactly… Parts of this touch on parts I wrote and then deleted here bc I kept saying to myself “the MONSTER is not the AUDIENCE” in this particular context. Writing is a tender process… indeed. Now, where have I heard that before? ;) And to Meghan, I agree… and especially if it’s GOOD because while we’re busy maybe trying to defend our hearts by saying “It don’t mean nuthin” (read with heavy NY accent) our heart is really on the line because, in truth, it means so much. Every word or phrase or image we allow someone to see is a dare. A dare to our own heart – a message that says “okay, you’re out there now… can you take it… I dare you!” So maybe in the end it doesn’t matter to our hearts WHAT the defense mechanisms are because we know if we feel or not. So, these defense mechanisms don’t really protect us, do they? They maybe make us think twice and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. But they may also make us feel paralyzed, and I don’t think that’s ever good. And maybe THEY (our fears) are the real monsters. Our stories/poems/images are our “offspring” (inspring?). It’s our fear that hurts us most by way of manifesting as roadblocks… not them.

  4. Why, Lyla? Because the things we make do get up and walk around and sing and dance and take on their own lives, completely apart from us, their creators. It’s frightening, even when it’s good.

  5. I don’t have a single thought about any of the questions, but have been completely invigorated by the discussion!

    This post covers a section of the book that has particularly “stuck” with me, the “where to start.” It’s often so obvious that I miss it, so close I overlook it.


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Starting with Frankenstein - Lyla Willingham Lindquist - December 12, 2012

    [...] finishing up our discussion of L.L. Barkat’s The Novelist: a novella at Tweetspeak today. Maybe you’ll join us. If nothing else, there’s the awesome “Puttin’ [...]

  2. This Week's Top Ten Poetic Picks - Tweetspeak Poetry - December 27, 2012

    [...] begin” is not that simple, even if one lies on the floor and stares at the ceiling or conjures images of Frankenstein. True stories, both. At last, the creators of Haiku Chain have found a way to help you start. In [...]

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