Dispatches | October 30, 2003

[By Amy Wilkinson]

Some stories come to me in the exact order I want to write them, so writing them is like rolling out carpet. Heavy carpet. A roll of thick gray wool carpet forty-five feet long that I have to run from end to end of, nudging forward with my foot—Won’t you please roll?—thrilled when gravity kicks in, the wound carpet unwinds, and I’ve got ground covered, inches.

The last story I wrote went like this. I started with two characters in a car, driving up the side of this cliff in Montana to the top, where there was a lake. They were going swimming because it was hot, hotter than she, Sara, had imagined Montana. He, Ian, had grown up in Montana but he didn’t know this lake. His mom, Mrs. Anderson, had told them about it. The lake was a place she went birding. Once Sara and Ian made it to the lake and walked, flip-flops slapping, across the asphalt parking lot, I introduced Joelle, a teenager already at the lake with her baby and the story went from there.

I started in the car because I wanted to work in Sara and Ian’s back-story before reaching the lake, and I wanted the sense of ascending to the lake, where things would happen, and because it just seemed like the place to start. Then I wrote the story, for the most part, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph leading to paragraph. I surely went back and added material before calling it a draft (a very early one), but it was a story that rolled out like carpet, and I’m thinking about it now because the piece I’m working on currently is not at all this way.

The opening paragraph I wrote when I first sat down with this “new story” is hovering, right now, in the middle of page four. It is unattached to the paragraph before it, and not like the notes hanging a few lines down, below. I don’t think it’s information that should be on page four. It’s much too important for page four. Page one stuff, I say, looking at the dejected little paragraph there, its shoulders hunched. But right this minute, I can’t imagine moving or losing the information before this former-first-paragraph; I can’t see how to integrate.

So I’m writing in pieces and all over the place. Breaking a long paragraph on page two to insert a line of dialogue. Adding more present action on three. And by tomorrow my former-first-paragraph will probably be on page five, and I will look at it there and feel sad and worried and keep writing, because though it’s an altogether different feeling, writing like this, I’m still covering ground. It’s like making a kitchen floor by nailing scraps of linoleum near other scraps of linoleum. Scraps that fit up against scraps, sort of.

I picture Flo’s floor in Alice Munro’s “Royal Beatings,” which was described as, “five or six different patterns of linoleum…. Ends, which Flo got for nothing and ingeniously trimmed and fitted together, bordering them with tin strips and tacks.” I hope eventually to pretty up my seams.

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