Essay 25: The Sinister Shape in the Water
I’ve been trying to write fiction again. I’ve been trying so hard to write fiction again that I paused for a long time after I wrote that first sentence and thought about its possibilities. “I’ve been trying to write fiction again” is not a bad beginning, for a story. It’s not great, but I have seen worse. Consider it: maybe the person who is trying to write fiction is a woman who has just quit her job at a university. Maybe she used to write and then she had some kind of Turn, like she looked at the blank page and saw only wiggly lines and heard the roar of the sea in her ears. She heard a distinct electrical humming, as of powerlines passing right through her living room. The living room has polished oak floors and on the wall is a painting by her father. It is of her mother, the upper part of her face obscured, sitting with her feet in a dirty swimming pool. There is a sinister shape in the green water, hands reaching out to the mother’s legs. Are they hands though? Or are they more flippers? The woman who cannot write is not sure. She has stared at the picture many times, and still cannot make out the meaning or import of the sinister shape. She can’t ask her mother or her father because they are both dead. Maybe this is the reason she can no longer write. This is surely why packed up her little exam pad, little pen, and got an admin job in the ecomonics department of a university. And now she is quitting, because the roaring has returned to her ears, or else she has come into an inheritance of some kind, or a combination of same. There is an evil but sexy sister. Her involvement in what happens next is not clear just yet, because I have no idea what happens next.
I don’t mean this in the way that some writers of fiction do, where they are happy to let their characters take over and dictate the course of the novel. I mean that I can’t do it. I would be thrilled to “let” my characters take over, if such a thing were possible. It is not. I don’t have that kind of a brain. Also, I am not in the opposing camp. If one side is Forster and “characters run away with you”, the other side is Nabokov and “my characters are galley slaves.” Again, this sounds great to me. I would be so, so happy to be the vicious captain of a ship called This Is What A Plot Looks Like. There’s all my characters below decks, sweating and straining away like in Asterix. There’s me, striding up and down the deck, holding a diet soda in each hand. I would love that. But this option is closed off to me as well.
I have no idea what happens next to the woman who cannot write, and I don’t care. I would never read that story. I hate it so much already, and it doesn’t even exist. I hate the evil but sexy sister, and I hate the painting on the wall. I hate the painting even though I cannot picture it. I have worked myself up into a state of high, pure irritation this week. I have tried to write one story, and then I have tried to write another one. I tried to combine the two. It doesn’t work. Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.
I try not to let this eat me up. I try to benefit and learn from this deeply chastening experience. I look to the woman who cannot write for inspiration, even though I hate her. Truly, I wish her ill. I hope her sister steals all her money. I hope her dad died of rage from looking at her stupid face. Still. The woman who cannot write would not give up so easily. She would keep trying, sitting on the polished oak floors with the light streaming through the windows, and the painting on the wall that I hate so much. She would sit there and wait, and sit, and something would happen eventually.