It is nine-thirty on Monday evening, I have just finished reading the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird to my cousin Charity, and I am wide awake, while she is fast asleep. I guess my southern drawl is soporific. Obviously she wasn’t very engaged in Harper Lee, but I’m so glad to have picked it up.
You see, I really want to write this summer—a real story—something with a climax, plot complications, and the sort of happy ending a reader can curl up and fall asleep in. The books I had been trying to make myself read, while worth my time, weren’t doing much for the creative juices. Bleak House, anyone? I cannot possibly write with Dickens on the brain. I can read with animation, I can hate Mrs. Jellyby with a holy passion, I can weep when Jenny’s baby dies, but when I sit down afterwards, I cannot think of a blasted thing to write. I do not have that scope. Instead, over the last couple of weeks I have drawn up the entire imaginary family tree of a clan called the Hardisons—sixty-one members and six generations worth. There are a good number of extra-marital affairs and shady business dealings involved, and I have the bad habit of marrying off third cousins to one another, but it has been great fun. I have worked out everyone’s birth and death date, and maiden name, all of which are neatly outlined in the 150 year timeline taped above my bed. And yet, there is no story screaming to be written. I have simply been joined by sixty-one vaguely interesting little writing companions. And we all lie there in bed late at night with little to say for ourselves.
In any case, while I could never be Dickens, there is a smidgen of hope for Alice as Harper Lee. I do not mean either that I grew up in place like Maycomb, Alabama in the thirties, which I didn’t, or that I could write something as wonderful and successful as To Kill a Mockingbird, which I couldn’t. I simply mean that Atticus Finch? I know him. I could reach out and shake his dry, warm hand, and honestly declare that I was pleased to meet him. The trick of writing characters, at least for me, is that I cannot write the people I actually know, but I must actually know the people I write. (If that makes any sense.)I must know them, at times, better than I know myself. Yet, before I really know someone, I must see them doing—I must see them performing the action of being themselves. I know Atticus because I have seen him remove his glasses to shoot a mad dog, and remove his jacket to defend an innocent man. Which brings me back to where I begun. I must have happenings and doings; I must have story. I must have eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe. I must have that which makes the ladies reach for their smelling salts and the gentlemen for their guns.
My little battalion of sixty-one, or perhaps soldiers from an entirely different quarter, must rise, sail onto the page, stake their claim and defend their territory. Go West, young man into the distant regions of the memory and the subconscious, drag the rivers, mine the gold, rake the muck, but return not empty handed! (Please. I really want to write a story.)