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.
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
- Consider the appearance of the letter V. Does it add anything to the story? If so, what?
- 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?
- 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.”
- What do the various images reveal about the main character, Laura? About the writing process?
- 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?
- 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?
Don’t have the book yet? Read the first three chapters for free. (But be careful. You’ll be hooked.)
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