A lot of writers find stories through a character who won’t leave them alone, a dream image they can’t shake off, what feels like some key scene that wells up before them and needs to be explained, or an autobiographical moment that demands to be fictionalized in order to be understood.
That certainly held true for me in several of my early novels.
But then, maybe a dozen years ago, something happened.
First, I somehow found myself increasingly imagining fiction as a mode of thought rather than storytelling. Second, I somehow found myself increasingly imagining metaphor as deep-structure generative and shaping tool for fiction.
I think this goes back to this day in a graduate fiction-writing workshop I was leading when I heard myself stop asking questions about motivations, about whether this or that character had earned the reader’s whatever, about whether some scene should be condensed or revised or placed thirteenth instead of third, and heard myself start asking:
What is the problem you’re helping yourself think about by writing the fiction you’re writing, and what is that problem challenging you to wrestle with at an existential level?
Once during an interview, someone asked Donald Barthelme what advice he might give a writer just starting out. He said: Write about what you’re afraid of. I realize now the questions I suddenly began asking my students — which is to say the questions I suddenly began asking myself — were cousins of Barthelme’s advice. They shifted keys for me. The allowed me to see my writing practices through a new optic.
What frightens you is precisely the problem you’re trying to think about through the extended metaphorization we call fiction.
If you can answer what the guiding metaphor is for your work, you’ve got yourself a game. Follow that metaphor down from largest architectonics all the way to syntax, diction, and punctuation, and you’ve got yourself a way in to the heart of the heart of your writing.
In my new novel, Dreamlives of Debris — a retelling of the Minotaur myth (more on which in a second) — that metaphor takes the form of the labyrinth in which my protagonist lives.
Labyrinths are shapes that traditionally suggest meditation, spiritual evolution, a journey from one state of being or world to another. The one in which my protagonist lives isn’t that. Rather, it evinces an impossible liquid architecture that bears no center and hence no discernable perimeter. Why? Because for me our post-truth contemporary has become labyrinth all the way down. Mine, then, isn’t so much architecture as a way of knowing, a way of being, a broad and dense metaphor for our current sense of presentness — the impression, for instance, that we are always awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.
In Dreamlives of Debris we’re not talking about a monster with bull’s head and human’s body. Rather, we’re talking about a little deformed girl — she calls herself Debris — whose parents hide her away at birth from public view in the labyrinth below Knossos. Debris possesses the ability to hear/see/feel the thoughts, memories, desires, pasts and futures of others throughout history, from Herodotus to Silk route traders to Borges, Derrida, and Edward Snowden. In fact, she can’t stop herself from receiving all those voices, which arrive as continuous shocks.
That’s her problem, and, I think, ours, too.
One of the things that interests me these days is the idea, not only of writing a novel, but of building one. I designed and laid out Dreamlives via InDesign as a way of thinking about the metaphor of the labyrinth and its richnesses at the level of form. Each page is a perfect square loud with white space. Each represents a different room in Debris’ labyrinth. And each arrives without a page number, so it’s easy to become disoriented, lost, as a reader … just as Debris and her victims become lost and disoriented.
Because Dreamlives exists without conventional location markers, the reader may feel a little freer to jump around, as well, start to think of reading as a mode of choreography, taking various paths as the mood strikes, for as long as the mood strikes, then perhaps wandering off in a different direction.
Linear narrative, alluring as it might seem to some, holds less and less attraction for me these days, except as light entertainment. That’s because at the deep-structure stratum — at the level of metaphor, that is — linear narrative teaches us life is an interlocking whole that moves uniformly and comprehensibly from beginning to end.
My experience has taught me something very nearly the opposite: that the real story is life isn’t one.
So the real problem for me in Dreamlives of Debris took the form of this question — the one most authors, I think, have to struggle with now, either consciously or unconsciously — How do we write the contemporary rather than rewriting the past?