Saturday, May 8, 2010

On incompleteness

My mother-in-law gave my little 'un these beautiful little blocks recently. I love their handmade quality, and their gentle resin-like finish. As we were playing with them this morning I noticed that no matter how they are stacked, there is no way you can have all four sides correctly matched. There is a little girl holding flowers, a little boy at the beach, a child of indeterminate gender playing in the snow, and another androgynous little imp collecting holly. The way the artwork is wrapped around each block, it is literally impossible to construct a complete character on every single side at once. By putting together the little girl holding flowers, for example, you have to throw the beach boy, the snow child and the holly imp into disarray.

For someone who strives towards completeness and neatness, I actually really love this. I gather it is deliberate and there's nothing that can be done about it. Somehow it relieves me of the compulsive need to match all four characters every time I am in reaching distance of the blocks. And I will admit: this is something that I would usually do. Every. Single. Time.

Is now the time to mention I'm writing a novel?

On the first day of the first week of the Handmade Writer course, we were asked to people-watch. The idea was to select a character who'd caught our voyeuristic eye and invent their story. By lunchtime on that first day, I'd spied a gangly boy who looked about eight years old, trailing behind his mother in a crowded shopping mall, wearing oversize plastic glasses with cardboard black and white swirls for lenses and only tiny holes the size of hole-punches to see through. He was walking so slowly and crookedly, I could read the bright pink writing on the bottom of each lens that said X-RAY GOGGLES. His mother's pained expression told me everything I needed to know.

I got home and started writing this eight year old boy's story. The exercises we were set, to tease out and develop the character, lent themselves to his narrative perfectly. The exercises that I did, he did too. The questions I asked, he answered.

I've heard about this phenomenon before. Many writers will say that they are but the conduit for their characters, that they merely channel them onto the page (well, screen more often than not). This is the first time this has happened to me. I know how this little boy's story is going to end, but I have no idea how we are going to get there. I also have an idea of the interpretations readers might have of the boy's special "friend", the one he can only see in certain circumstances, aided by his x-ray goggles. But I do not have the definitive answer and, I suspect, this is not something he will care to reveal. But I do know that he will continue to tell me his tale, until it is told.

For once, I am enjoying not being in the driver's seat. It was like the idea was sitting like an untapped well, just under the surface of my consciousness, waiting to be discovered. Once I got out of my own way, I could coast on the narrative flow.

I have been asked several times by my classmates whether this is a topic I have written on before, as the voice is familiar and comfortable. I can honestly say that there is no "Here's one I prepared earlier" about this one! The story, the character, the voice: they are all as new to me as the ease of the writing.

Newest of all is the delight with the incompleteness of the story. And I have the feeling that that is what readers are going to enjoy most of all.


  1. I want a copy of this book ASAP when you are done! It can be wrinkled and torn and just stapled together. It will be fantastic because it will truly be an original.xoxo

  2. I was just watching a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert yesterday that really resonates with this post. Here's the link, in case you haven't see it already

    Can't wait to read the finished story one day.

  3. I felt like this when I went on my Arvon course and we were asked to just run with an's amazing what it unlocks, when you just get out of your own way and let the story unfold.

    I think I'll do the next Handmade Writer course, it sounds great!