The imagination is the weather of the mind.
Wallace Stevens, Adagia.
How many of us have started promising beginnings only to have them sputter out, take wrong turns, and just refuse to go on? And how many of us say about ourselves "I just can't seem to finish things even though I start them?"
Over twenty years ago, when I’d written just one collection of short stories, I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. She lived in Germany during World War II and was helping people answer letters to the dead. I knew her name. I could feel her claustrophobia. I also heard some of the letters. I wrote sixteen pages and stopped because I knew this woman lived in a world with so many strands only a novel could do it justice. I could even hear the length, like a few musical notes surrounded by hours of silence. But I only knew how to write short fiction.
I wrote other books. But the sixteen pages kept turning up in my studio, as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf. They turned up in a tax pile. They turned up under my printer. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school--a long flyer, pleading for ecologically-packed lunches. They began to feel like a letter from the woman in the mine, asking me to tell her story. The paper grew more brittle and the typewriter print more antiquated. From time to time I saw her writing in a large room with other people. I always read the sixteen pages. I felt drawn to them. But I always put them away.
A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger once had a revelation that was caused by his own eyeglasses. As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about; but I was sure it involved World War II. I didn’t think about those sixteen pages until I’d written the novel and received the galleys. Then I found them--again on invisible springs--as if they were determined to remind me that they were the origin of the book. I read them over and realized they were a DNA of almost everything that became Heidegger’s Glasses. I also realized that even though they were about an imaginary world, the world was launched by real events in World War II. I didn’t know about these events when I wrote those pages. I only found out about them afterwards, when I began to write the novel.
The contents of the book were drawn unconsciously from those sixteen pages. But they locked me into research. This research made me understand why, so many years ago I had imagined a woman in an underground mine helping people write letters to the dead---where my imagination had reached, and what it somehow had known.
If indeed the imagination is the weather of the mind, then we all contend with the storms and rain and sun of our imaginations. And because the imagination is part of the world, we contend with the imaginations of people and groups who are distinct and sometimes far away. The imagination has uncanny instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of the mind. It can find doors to other centuries, read forbidden books, and meet improbable people. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses has been an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the life of the imagination and the facts of recorded history.
Some questions to ask, then, about beginnings
1. Are beginnings that don't seem to go anywhere failures.? Or are we just impatient about them?
2. Do more beginnings than we realize contain the seeds of the whole story?
3. How much unravelling of a story goes on below the surface? i.e. during those times
when we're not writing or even thinking about writing?
4. Do we stifle ourselves by deciding in advance that something "just couldn't happen?"
5. Or Does the imagination vibrate to events far beyond our knowledge of them, resulting in beginnings
that have extraordinary links to events that did happen, even if we don't know about them when we start
6. Even if something didn't happen, is it our job as writers to make sure that whatever we imagine leave
the reader no doubt that it did?
7. Is research premature for some of us? Do some writers do better finding the voice of the story and the cf content of the story first?
I've often found that the beginning of a short story is a promise to myself and to the reader. I now think it may be the case with the beginning of much longer pieces. Each phrase or situation may be like one of those shells that open in water to reveal a garden.
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