Last winter I went to hear Kimberly McCreight read from her debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. During the talk part of the reading, McCreight mentioned an aspect of her writing process that made me smile one of those “right on! so true! thank you for giving that thing a name!” smiles-of-familiarity. While I can’t remember her precise words, the gist was this: sometimes when you are writing, you get stuck in these spots where you’ve got loose ends dangling, and things aren’t making sense or moving in a direction that resonates. And sometimes, when you’re in one of these spots, trying to power through and solve this problem you’ve identified, your best bet is to go back and look at what is right in front of you because, so often, “we leave ourselves clues” (this one phrase may be a direct quote).
The nature and quality of clues may differ when you are writing full-length novels like McCreight’s, but I can attest to the fact that they lurk even within shorter format, 1000-ish word picture book texts. The reading came on the tail of a struggle I had been having with the ending of a story, and McCreight’s description rang true in my solution. The clue that I had left myself was a pair of twins. There was no reason that my narrator had to have twins for brothers, but that was what I had given her. And those two little boys ended up being the seeds to my problem’s solution.
I had stumbled on a similar bit of ‘truth’ years before in a landscape drawing course. Our professor pushed us to let what we saw in space – lights, darks, lines, textures, etc. – flow in through our eyes and straight out our hands. No stopping. No mediating. No editing.
I loved letting go and drawing this way. But I soon learned that, as important as it was to enter into drawing by drawing, it was equally important to pause, to detach and to back away. Then, you come back to your work and have what I came to call a “My God What Have I Done?” moment (from David Byrne’s song, “Once In A Lifetime”), where you look at your work with fresh eyes. Because in drawing, like writing (and probably most things in life) half the time we don’t really know what we’ve done, or are doing.
I mention the leaving of clues – and the importance of the David Byrne moment — because this week I hit one of those road blocks. I read and re-read a story I was writing, trying to figure out how two strands could come together, and then suddenly a tuna sandwich jumped out at me. Why was there a tuna sandwich in the story in the first place? Maybe because it’s what an incidental old man, sitting on a park bench, might have for lunch. Or maybe because I found tuna sandwiches distasteful as a kid. In any case, it was there and it was my clue. The tuna sandwich, like the twins, was the beginning of the end of that moment’s conundrum.
Before they became clues, the twins and the tuna sandwich were just there, unconnected and not particularly significant. I hadn’t over-thought either of them or imbued either with any clear value or meaning. In retrospect, their effectiveness as ‘clues’ seems somehow connected to the availability that comes with landing in the text agenda-less. In any case, both were good reminders of how ‘in-the-eye-and-out-the-hand’ can work, inadvertently, like a Hansel-and-Gretel-esque crumb drop.