Tuesday, 3 January 2017

In the Beginning ... - Umberto Tosi

"'Begin at the beginning.' the king said gravely, 'and go on until you come to the end. Then stop.'"

I'm thinking a lot about beginnings right now. This is not so much because it's January, though that's natural. I've never been much for New Year's rituals and resolutions. The universe gives not a rat's patootie that we don party hats and make noise at an arbitrary point in our orbit around second-rate Sol on the seedy outskirts of the Milky Way. Jorge Luis Borges pointed out that "time can't be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while every day - perhaps every hour - is different." Indeed, this January seems very different from the last. It feels more like an end - maybe the end - than a beginning. We've had our cup of kindness for auld lang syne, yet can't forget the blood orange orb rising over Amerca. It's not a new day, but a brutish one from its slave plantation past returned to haunt us.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles.
'Where shall I begin, please, Your Majesty?"
Illus. Bessie Pease Gutman, 1907 
I'm thinking more about the beginnings of stories, and how a writer is to know what distinguishes the real thing from just another false start. After many months of unhatched drafts, I have a sequence of chapters that feel right as the opening section of the novel that I set out to write a year ago and nearly gave up on several times. There's part one blinking on my screen when I open its file - palpable as a newborn staring back at me in wonder.

Unlike the earth's orbital path, I've discovered once again that there's no continuity from one point to the next when it comes to writing - no apparent causality. One minute it's all a muddle, the next it's working. One might say this is subjective. But it doesn't feel that way. It's more like the changes of state we learned about in secondary school chemistry class. A glass of water remains impossibly liquid as its temperature plummets below freezing point, then, bingo, you get ice. The tipping point reminds me -presumptuously - of what the Salieri character says about Mozart in the late Peter Shafer's 1979 play, Amadeus: "Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall." Well, except with my work, you don't get to Mozart.

Establishing a plausible opening usually takes me as much effort as writing the rest. Surprise, surprise, it's always going to be a writing-rewriting process, but the inertia is thickest at the beginning. No matter how I try to map and outline, I can't see my way with any clarity until I get past that opening gate.

The beginning, of course, is not necessarily where a novel's sequence of events starts. Storytellers can raise the curtain anywhere  - at the end, or in the middle, with backstories emerging as the action unfolds. Last spring, I launched into the first draft of the novel I'm currently writing - The God Machine - with a bang - literally - the day of a bombing, narrated by one of its survivors. I got 150+ pages into the story before I realized that the blast happened in its past and needed to be revealed as a history that shaped the main characters lives in ways that slowly become evident.

Borges at L'Hotel, Paris. 1968

The beginning is a gateway. It's a rabbit hole into which I tumble after flailing about in a landscape of ideas, characters, and predicaments that I can't seem to fit together. I'm wandering through a garden of doubt; then I fall into blackness. Then I wake up inside the story. Everything seems familiar, yet altered in that way of dreams. Things stand for things, stand for inchoate things and incongruence makes its own peculiar sense. Happenings and situations from previous drafts show up in new contexts. The characters step out of their stiff portraits and confront me as I scribble notes.

I feel tuned into the story 24/7, like one of those SETI radar telescopes (or maybe a guy in a tinfoil hat getting messages from beyond.) Bits of narrative pop into the head unpredictably, whether or not I'm at my desk: twists, phrases, ideas, even single words suggested by conversations, TV programs, stuff I'm reading, or just from thin air while I'm buttering toast. I jot down what seems compelling when I have the chance - messages to myself I try to decipher when I sit down at my keyboard. Don't ask me how I know it's something that goes in the story. I just do. Inklings arrive like text messages from somebody out there (or in there) I know, without a name.

My inamorata, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, notices my distraction, but, being a painter who does something similar when she is in the midst of creating a work from her sketches, she nods knowingly.

"I get it. You're in storyland," she says.

"Or maybe just in-sane," I tell her, beaming myself back to earth.

Others have taken note of the split realities of storyland far more deftly than I. Borges danced with the paradoxes ironically in his 1960 parable, Borges y Yo. He addressed his symbiotic selves: Borges the public author who gets all the credit and copes with quotidian reality, and the elusive Borges who secretly writes all his poems and stories. "I let myself live so that Borges may write his literature, and this literature justifies me," the Argentine author says. "It poses no great difficulty to admit that he has put together some decent passages, yet these passages cannot save me, perhaps because whatsoever is good does not belong to anyone, not even the other, but to language and tradition."

Maybe it's a symptom of creative split-personality disorder. My obsession with beginnings is a function of all-thumbs me trying desperately to rig a portal that will lure reclusive, eccentric ghost-writer me (who seems able to write but can't do much else) to enter, sit down and get the job done.

Like as not, I'm fooling myself with literary legerdemain. Objectively, if one can objectively use that term in this context, there's no mystery. I've made a conscious choice to favor one storyline over many alternatives, some viable, some not. My buzz is nothing more than relief at having made up my mind at last. The choice probably is just as arbitrary as our picking the Gregorian-calendar-artifice of midnight, January 1, to celebrate one more trip around a sun that our planet has orbited about four billion times now. Does it matter? The psychological impact is real in both cases. Energy is released. Things happen because of it.
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U. Tosi caught
in shameless plug
Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He covered high-tech startups for Forbes ASAP through the late 90s. He has been editor of San Francisco Magazine among other periodicals and written extensively for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several AE anthologies. He resides in Chicago, partnered with noted visual artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. He has four grown children, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

6 comments:

Fran B said...

You make novel-writing sound a bit like an illness which one finds oneself in the middle of, flailing about looking for a diagnosis. Then there's a moment when you have an inkling of the nature, maybe even the name, of it. A treatment plan emerges and gradually becomes progress. In time, prognosis is glimpsed, hopefully optimistic and not too long-drawn-out.

I can relate to this analogy: I am currently in the convalescent phase of my last (4th)) novel.

dipika said...

Ha! a totally relate-able post...but most of us writers revel in this dis-ease and wouldn't have it any other way!

Alicia Sammons said...

I enjoyed falling through the 'rabbit hole' of this perspective essay on the creative process. A process that is both 'of you' and 'beyond you', one that links you to other realities, whose beginnings and endings both mirror and transform our own. An insightful reflection that inspires writers, seasoned and novice, to continue in their wondrous, creative madness.

Kara said...

Excellent writing and very captivating!
I now better understand your process of creative writing.
I myself have a totally different process for writing but I too will try to jot things down that pop into my head from time to time.
Thanks for the tips.
Reading this piece is very enlightening for me.
The new year I believe is not just another trip around the sun but it marks another year of our lives (in our time) and perhaps in the book of life it does matter for the day will come when our physical life ends and what is written will be an entry into eternity that might be of some reference to future experiences as spiritual entities.
Great piece!
Thanks for the read.

HighFatContent said...

"The universe gives not a rat's patootie that we don party hats and make noise at an arbitrary point in our orbit around second-rate Sol on the seedy outskirts of the Milky Way."

Exactly.

As Goethe reminds us, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

I admire you greeting the page every day, Umberto, with unquenchable curiosity and fortitude.

Viva La Vida!

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you all for your kind words and interest. I'm happy that you enjoyed this offering and felt it worthwhile.