Last week I began telling the story of the manuscript on which I’m working. I said that it all started with water. That’s sort of true, but it really begins even further back. In 1999 I took a poetry workshop with Mekeel McBride as one of my last classes as an M.A. candidate at the University of New Hampshire. As part of that class, we had to read books by contemporary poets and write “homage” poems in the style of, or inspired by the reading. It was a great learning tool; it allowed us to try out different forms and to reach outside our already somewhat ridged writing styles. The poet that had the greatest effect on me was Russell Edson. We read a collection of his work entitled The Tunnel and the experience of reading the poems certainly felt reminiscent of moving into a darkness. At first, I didn’t like his often bizarre, surrealist prose poems. I couldn’t tell what it was I was meant to see in his elliptical sentences stocked with gorillas, taxis that turned into walls of butterflies, and men who become stones. But I trusted the teacher; she wouldn’t have pointlessly assigned Edson.
By the middle of the collection, I began to enjoy entering Edson-ville. His nightmarishly conceived little worlds grew increasingly soothing, and entry into his vast imagination proved a worthwhile exploration not only of the shape of words and sounds, but also of imagination and perception of our own culture and civilization. When it came time to write my homage, I was forced to look at ordinary things in new ways, to see the fantastic in the everyday. For me, it all came down to numbers. My poem (I am a serviceable poet at best, so I won’t be sharing the poem here) attempted to recreate a society that counted everything. In its first draft, it seemed a terrifying place to imagine—fascistically organized. But the more I wrote, the less terrifying it seemed. Indeed, the inhabitants of my poem took comfort in their counting and were only undone by the wind, which they could find no way to classify or codify. It became a dark utopia, one that I enjoyed pondering.
I enjoyed thinking about it so much that I wrote a short story entitled “17 Historical Documents” that chronicled this civilization in more detail. It was fun to write and to think about and for a long time I thought that would be the end of the story. I tried to interest a few literary reviews in the work, but never had any luck. The society of numerologists was conceptually fun. I think, however, that it was missing a key ingredient to make it a successful short story: context. I think people who read the story thought, “Well, that is a strange land…I wonder how they got that way.” I suppose I wondered how they got that way, too. At the time I was writing the story, I was writing my first novel, and that occupied most of my writing and revising life. After several years of work and rejection on that book (understandable rejection, mind you—the book just wasn’t that good), I returned to short stories, but my attention had been drawn back to realism and away from fantastical stories. “17 Historical Documents” languished.
I’ll fast forward a bit through my next bout of novel writing. I wrote Ghost Light as I worked on my MFA at Bennington College. I wrote a few stories there as well, but the novel took precedence. In December of 2004, the Asian Tsunami struck most of the countries that border the Indian Ocean. The destruction was horrific. I had two friends in Thailand at the time, and they were near some of the worst devastation. Perhaps because of the news coverage, or because the fate of my friends was uncertain, or because of my common bond to humanity and the sinking feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that evolves around natural disasters far away, I began thinking much of water. I didn’t think at the time: “I know, I’ll write a story about the Tsunami!” I never seem to know exactly what I’ll be writing about. The creative mystery isn’t something I normally dissect, but looking back on it now, it is easy to see that I began thinking in terms of a great, global flooding—a noveau forty days and nights—and apocalyptic destruction. At the same time, I was reading Walt Whitman, and it is nearly impossible to remain apocalyptic while reading Whitman. There’s a line in “Song of Myself” that reads: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.” Whitman is talking about death there, but it really fits about every situation. So my thoughts of the apocalypse were tempered by the thought that nothing collapses. It wasn’t exactly optimistic, but it wasn’t sheer dread, either.
In January of 2004, I went to Bennington for my bi-yearly MFA residency. It was a bitterly cold ten days in Vermont. Although the residencies weren’t really geared toward allowing any writing time, I forced myself to spend a bit of time with my work during the morning hours, before the day of lectures and workshops began. Not really wanting to work on my novel, I went into town and bought myself a nice blank notebook at the local bookstore in hopes that it would spark some new stories (new notebooks are such beacons of hope!). And then, with the thoughts of Whitman and the Tsunami and Noah and Floods and Beginnings and Endings floating in my head, I wrote. There, in my tiny little dorm room on the Bennington College campus, I set a man down on a raft. A pretty modest beginning for a novel I suspect, and not the first nor the last book that will start with a man on a raft. Then, as he was floating, he saw a woman floating in the distance. Endings. Beginnings. Man. Woman. Adam. Eve. Creation. All going onward and outward, refusing to collapse. Suddenly, without even meaning to, I’d begun a new novel. It would be nearly five years before I found my way to a finished manuscript.
How I got from floating people to my dark-utopian-number-obsessed society is another story, for another post.