Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Containing the River

I recently saw Alice Sebold in person at my local library. She was giving an interview onstage with a local radio personality. She was there to discuss her new book, The Almost Moon, but she also spoke quite a bit about her debut novel, The Lovely Bones. This was a bestseller in 2001, the year I graduated from college. I will absolutely never forget when I first encountered it. I had just graduated and moved with my boyfriend to a new city. I had always had something to do in the fall--I'd never felt more adrift in my life. I felt transparent, like my future hadn't found me yet and I didn't quite exist.

I was a lifeguard that summer--not at a regular pool, but a fill-in lifeguard who traveled to different pools when their regular guards called in sick. I remember sitting at a pool with weird green Astroturf instead of a cement deck in the middle of a subdivision, wishing I'd remembered to bring reading material. I saw a copy of Seventeen on one of the deck chairs, and I picked it up. There was some fiction in it--I thought it had won some contest or something. It was a short story about a girl at a camp for gifted kids. Her sister had been killed in a brutal murder. Her grief was so alive on the page, and her tentative first love with a boy at camp was so poignant--I thought it was the most brilliant short story I'd ever read. It turned out it wasn't a short story at all--it was Chapter 10 of The Lovely Bones.

I wondered at the time whether I'd been so affected by that book because I was reading it at such a strange time in my life. But looking back, I realize that it was well-written in a way that isn't planned--it was like the poetry of the phrasing was coming directly from Sebold's subconscious. Here's an example of what I mean. This is how Sebold starts off the scene where Lindsey, the girl whose sister died, loses her virginity:

Under a rowboat that was too old and worn to float, Lindsey lay down on the earth with Samuel Heckler, and he held her.

What's important in this sentence? Sebold doesn't say "Lindsey lay down on the ground"--the way a normal person would say it. She uses the word "earth."

Her sister, Susie, was killed in a sort of room that her murderer had dug out of the ground. "There was too much blood in the earth," Sebold says when she describes how the police knew that Susie had been killed and not just kidnapped. You see the word "earth" in the scene with Lindsey, and you don't just think about two teenagers under a rowboat. You think about how the earth that Lindsey is lying on is the same earth that held her sister as she died--about how for Lindsey, the act of sex is life-affirming--she's still on the earth, not in it--and for Susie, the act of sex was her death. And even in this moment when Lindsey is moving into a realm of adulthood where her sister will never follow, she will always be connected to her--as connected as she is to the ground on which she walks. The word "earth" rings in that sentence. It's a strong statement. And I believe it's not something writers do on purpose. It's almost automatic.

I remember Sebold saying once that she didn't have a choice but to write The Lovely Bones--that the character of Susie came to her and demanded that she write it. My boyfriend, who was with me at the time, thought that sounded loopy. I thought it sounded absolutely sane. Novelists must sit down every day and slog through stories that they aren't sure will work until they reach the end. They must make endless choices about character. I'm writing a book right now where I'm not extremely invested in the main character--I see two different types of characters that could tell this story well, and despite the fact that I'm well into this story now, I still struggle with the temptation to scrap everything and start all over again, using the other character type.

But sometimes you don't have a choice. Sometimes the characters come to you with voices so strong that you know exactly what they will say, how they sound, how they word things--sometimes much differently than the way you would yourself--and how they think. They grab you by the imagination and they make you write their story. It's happened to me before, and it makes all the difference. The story simply flows through you, as if you're the channel that guides the river. You don't have to manufacture the water yourself.

I've read Lucky, Alice Sebold's other book. It was definitely good--but I didn't find it to be inspired the way The Lovely Bones was. I didn't see the same instinctual poetry, the same seminal repetition of certain words. She was thinking her way through this one, not simply letting it come. During the interview, Sebold said one thing that stuck with me: she said that the first line of any book is the most important part, because that is the first thing your narrator says. Once you get that exactly right, you know how the voice of the book sounds. And the hard part of the work is done.

If you've ever felt that strong connection with your characters, that flow of words and ideas that seems to be coming through you from someplace else, you've felt something very ancient. The Greeks named it the Muses. You can see its work in The Lovely Bones. And maybe you've felt it, every so often, when you sit at your keyboard. If you have, you're sharing in something as old as creativity yourself. And you're a true writer.

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