Monday, July 9, 2012

A Brief History of the Written Word

“There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr. Ibis in his perfect copperplate handwriting.
            That is the tale; the rest is detail.”
American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Here’s a fact: I started writing stories when I was about five years old.  I wrote a story for school—in Kindergarten or first grade, I can’t be sure.  I wrote it and illustrated it, and my teacher laminated the cover and bound the pages together with plastic rings, and she had me read it to the class.  I can’t remember how I felt about reading it aloud, but I’d guess I didn’t like it much.  It’s not that I have a problem speaking in front of other people; I’ve voluntarily performed in a number of plays.  No, the problem I have is with my own words.  When I write something, for the most part, I like to pretend it has nothing to do with me.  It’s an illusion that shatters the moment you start reading aloud.

Like I said, I don’t remember for sure how I felt about reading it.  But I do remember how I felt about the thing itself.  When that teacher first told me she was going to “publish” my little story, I walked into a different world.  At five years old, I felt that I had done the most grown up thing you could ever do: write a book.

At 23, I feel more or less the same.  I wrote a book, and it’s kind of freaking me out.  I haven’t sent it to a publisher, or even an agent.  Until two weeks ago, mine were the only eyes ever laid on it.  But it’s a book, and it has a plot, characters, chapters, an ending.  The thing itself is finished.  Also, one other person has read it now.  And she didn’t tell me it was the worst thing ever.  So, you know.  It’s been a weird week.

If somebody went back in time and told my earlier selves what their first novel would be about, I think they’d be concerned.  Not surprised, exactly, but concerned.  So what’s it about, you ask?  Well, sir.  Indeed.  Um.  Okay.  Let’s go with…an impoverished teenage girl in southeast Missouri who deals drugs.  I’d say recreationally, but that would be flippant.

Like I said, I don’t think younger Sara would have problem believing you if you told her.  But she would probably wonder a great deal about the intervening years to come.

Of course, if you told her what I’ve told you, you wouldn’t really be telling her the novel.  You’d be telling her a sentence, and it would suffice to stand for over 98,000 words.  There was a girl, and she sold drugs.  And there was a girl who wrote about her for a number of years, until she came up with this finished thing, and then, finally, she had to stop.

There was a girl, and she sold drugs.  You read that sentence, and it stands for the novel.  You read the novel, and it stands for something else.  We try to tell a story under the story, and we hope nobody throws rocks at our heads for the effort.

I wrote a story when I was five, and I wrote a lot of stories after that.  I don’t know the number.  I can tell you it’s well more than ten.  I’m feeling weird about this last one.  It’s longer than the others, and I spent more time on it.

It’s a stupid old cliché, but here it is: I feel exposed.  I’m a very private person, usually.  But I just sent what feels like my life’s work out to what feels like the whole universe and it makes me feel a little raw.  On edge.  Every once in a while, I’ll remember a name, or a sentence, and I’ll wish I spent more time editing.  And then I’ll take a breath and try to remember that you can’t edit forever.  I’ll try to remember that I mostly hate Kubrick, who edited everything for fifty thousand years, so there’s no point editing that long.  At a certain point, you push eject and you walk away.  Email it to everyone you know and wonder if you’ll ever get any money out of it.

There was a girl, and she wrote this thing.  I don’t know if I can tell it any better than that.

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