On Tuesday, December 3rd, after I came home from French class (the first of the new winter term), I watched tv and ate a bowl of cereal on the sofa before getting ready for bed. It was 9:45 when I’d finished washing my face, a process that takes exactly as long and is exactly as involved as you’d expect for someone about to turn 33. I passed my office on the way to my bedroom, and made it two steps beyond the doorway—my desk framed by the open door—when the strangest thing happened to me. In what I can only attribute to some sort of divine, creative intervention: my forearms began to feel weird. (Descriptive, for a writer, I know.) As if there was a pent up charge of energy collecting in my hands. I turned back to my office and reached for my notebook. A softcover, navy blue Moleskine notebook I’d purchased almost a year ago exactly at Barnes & Noble with the intention of filling with my second novel. A notebook that, save for three (three!) pages, had sat entirely unmarked and untouched for eleven months. My hands felt shaky, needy, about to fly off my body.
I had to write. I physically had to or I was going to burst. I didn’t even have a choice in the matter. I barely recognized the sensation. I took the notebook to bed and proceeded to write until 12:30 in the morning, page after page of a story that came to me out of nowhere and fully formed. Character names, backstories, a plot, a title. It was all there, dropped into my head and spilling out of me onto the page with very little effort on my part, as if I was merely a conduit for it. If this is what people mean when they say they were “struck with inspiration,” I understand now precisely how physical a blow it is.
In her TedTalk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert recounts a poet describing her experience with inspiration as a “thunderous train of air” she hears in the distance and which eventually barrels towards her, the ground shaking beneath her feet. The poet would run to her desk to write it down, being chased by this poem, so that when it “thundered through her, she could collect it.” Gilbert says she’s also had times where work has come to her through a source that she can’t identify. It is, after all, “the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process…which does not always behave rationally and can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”
That’s as close to describing what I experienced that Tuesday night/Wednesday morning as I can get. To say this story fell out of the sky and dropped into my brain would not be inaccurate. Yes, all of my lived experiences probably contributed to it in some way. I’ll give myself some credit for being able to write it, but not so much about the source of it.
When I bought that notebook, I intended to write a very different novel. It was set in Rome in the late 90s, about a young journalist who goes missing and whose sister comes to look for him. I had a rough outline. I had ideas. I struggled with the main character’s name. I struggled with an ending. I struggled with the fact that it seemed too like my last novel in terms of the relationships between the characters. Mostly, I struggled. Sitting down to work on it became disheartening, frustrating, so at some point I stopped sitting down to work on it altogether. I revisited it occasionally, but it was like squeezing water from a stone. The story is there, and I think it could be a good story one day, but it clearly wasn’t its time.
I am now 36 pages in to this new novel, in the span of less than two weeks. It is set in London and it is about an affair. I have written every single day since that first night. I write on my lunch break, I write at night, I write throughout the day when things come to me. I carry this notebook with me everywhere, and for the first time in a long time I feel like a writer again. It’s crazy, the extent to which not writing has the opposite effect. I’m going to London for a weekend in February, because it’s been over a decade since I visited the Smoke, and who doesn’t love a quick overseas jaunt in the name of book research?
Writing one novel has provided me with invaluable insights into what NOT to do this time. I can’t wait to take you all along for the ride.