March 23, 2005

Creative Writing: Man Sitting Under a Tree

Let’s say I want to write a novel about a man sitting under a tree. For two hundred pages that’s all he does. But of course that is not the action of the novel. The action is what happens in his mind as he sits under the tree. He goes back into memory and forward into anticipation. Regret, longing, and distracting fantasy propel scenes and interior monolog, while recurring descriptions of his sitting under the tree provide a repeating bass line. He may think he is moving toward some kind of enlightenment, but the novel subsumes that into its many–stranded weave. The character is not aware that his enlightenment consists of being a character in a novel.

I think about this, and I like it, but something’s not clicking. There’s a lack of dramatic necessity here. Given the premise of a novel about a man sitting under a tree, the specifics of his life could be anything. Why this man and not some other man or woman? Why are his memories and anticipations about Texas rather than Greenland, love lost rather than love found and struggled through, ambitions rewarded rather than ambitions foiled?

The answer of course is that the man is a version of me—not the everyday me, but some homunculus that springs from somewhere inside me, intersecting with who I appear, to myself and others, to be. A cartoon self–portrait, perhaps, or an unexpressed second self, or a wish to become acceptable—who knows? And that doesn’t seem enough to justify dwelling on a character for two hundred pages in the hope of developing ideas of deep interest to thousands of readers.

So I think of a way to overcome this limitation, to transcend the arbitrary individual particulars, the local color of my personality. This character is not going to be me with a stable identity, he’s going to be me in all my unexpressed potential, all my unlived lives, all my untaken chances and untrod paths, and all the unforeseen consequences. The facts of his life will shift from scene to scene; his experiences will cover a wider swath than any single living person’s could. We will see who he became on one path and who he became on another path. It will be a vision of an unfolded self, a tesseract personality. At the end, he is just a figure sitting under a tree—all of them, and none.

I like that too, but there’s still something bothering me: this inability to get away from my stubbornly persistent self. If I’m going to write about a wide field of characters, why must they all be me?

So the man under the tree changes once again. He is not going to just be one man magnified, one personality budding into a cauliflower cluster of related personalities, one character fermenting into transmutations like Joycean fermented words. The character under the tree is going to be a population: thousands of unrelated people arising from one serenely active mind, each living its own paths, most of them unaware of the others, some of them connected by genes or friendship or work or neighborhood. The man keeps sitting under the tree as a city rises around him. Is he even aware of the mass life springing from his brain, crowding the landscape beyond his lidded eyes, rushing, striving, hurrying, planning, seeking, scheming, hoping, planning, cheating, building? At the end, it doesn’t even matter whether he is or not.

This is the one I like. And what I like best is that I don’t have to write it. It’s already being written, it’s always being written, all around me as I sit under this tree.