Ten million trillion neutrinos will speed harmlessly through your brain and body in the time it takes to read this sentence. By the time you have read this sentence, they will be farther away than the moon.
-- Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way*
One of the books I just finished closes almost precisely on the same line, and with a similar image, as a short story I've been trying to write, on and off, for the last three years. People talk about memes travelling like a game of telephone or Chinese whispers (and here I mean memes in the real sense, not in the sense of passing around links, quizzes, pictures, and the like on the internet). But the coincidence in this case seems so odd to me, and so unlikely, that I can't help but wonder whether ideas don't travel more like neutrinos-- zinging through each mind and then away. If a writer knows the moment for what it is when a thought arrives, he or she might grab it and give it voice; otherwise it travels on, hits someone else, and maybe that person catches it.
Nah. It's a lovely idea, but a bit woo*, really. It's far more likely that I'm not the first person to think of ending a story with that particular line, or with that image. There are only so many words, and so many images, and so many thoughts out there in the first place; repetition or concurrence of certain ideas may come as a surprise, but seems also inevitable. In any case, the discovery has finally convinced me that I need to start writing my story over entirely. It's not the first or only thing to convince me, mind you. Just the final straw, in a manner of speaking; now I genuinely understand what they† mean when they tell you to throw out the first thousand pages.
Start over, on a blank page one, without a draft to consult. The idea was suggested to me by Val somewhere down below, and it's a good one: more than hacking relentlessly away toward the truth, it takes you all the way back to the beginning-- the single creative kernel at the heart of a story. The moment before the narrative Big Bang, let's say. That's a scary prospect.
In the Beginning I had an image in my head of a girl having her bag stolen in a London tube station. Over the last three years I added things, and complicated things, and wrote lots and lots of lovely paragraphs describing how deeply and irrevocably the girl fell into trouble-- but the story ended up nowhere. Each addition to the narrative, no matter how accomplished, felt further and further from what the story ought to have been.
With a blank page in front of me, I think about the moment I first began to write the story-- much longer ago, actually, than the three years I claim. I didn't really know then it was something which might become a story. I just wrote. I was still living in Britain at the time, near Cambridge, and I'd just flubbed and failed my way through a couple of miserable job interviews. I sat on the floor of the tiny spare room we used as a study, up against the radiator, with a notebook in my lap. It may have been early, a weekend morning, say, my husband still asleep. Or it might have been a weekday afternoon, and I was alone in the house. The sun was coming in the window; it was chilly. The radiator clunked and hissed a little, but I curled up against it like an old friend, and wrote for a page or so about a girl who gets lost. She was lost because I was lost. She got lost on purpose: she let the thief steal her bag. That was where the story began.
When I sat down with that scene a few years later and began to rewrite it-- this time out on the back deck of the house I live in now, in the late summer sunshine-- I don't think I remembered how it came out of a sense of being adrift and helpless. I felt comfortable by then; I wasn't lost any more. When I go back and read the story now, it reads as though written by someone in comfort, someone far flung from that original kernel which began it. Frankly the whole thing's a bit glib. Somehow I need to find my way back to that moment on the floor in the spare room, trying to write, feeling that I'd left everything I knew behind, and that everything which could possibly have gone wrong had done. And then begin again.
I'll let you know how I get on.
No exercise for this week-- and I still haven't done the the telling-a-lie one, mainly because it completely fails to interest me (which ought to tell me something about its potential use in a workshop), but I'm always on the lookout, and Jack P.-- whose Scary Halloween Story roundup I participated in last year (wonder if he'll host it again this year?)-- has posted some interesting suggestions for getting started from an old BBC page; I may try some of those.
Goldfish gave me a nice shout-out over there, too, which was awfully kind of her, and I can only return the favor: if you have not yet read Diary of a Goldfish, you need to. She's one of the best writers out there blogging, in my opinion. And she bakes a mean Dalek Cake.
*Ferris, Timothy. Coming of Age in the Milky Way. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 344.
**See number four under the Urban Dictionary definition if you're not British.
† i.e., "The Wizards"