I write to dig my fingers into the mulch of my life. I’m talking physical objects here, not narratives, far less theories. I know what calls to me in life, but if I’m going to find out why it calls me, I need to roll in it.
So I start with the most basic principle of (dis)order: the Pile.
Think dragon’s hoard. Yes, dragons take only jewels and precious metals, but within those limits, anything goes. If the plundered castle contains a diamond-studded chamber pot – and any castle of mine would have one – into the hoard with it!
My childhood was filled with piles of treasure, or at least, the piles are what I recall most clearly. Take the old Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which I visited weekly, alone, for hours. The Peabody hoarded curios of the Yankee clipper trade: Samoan canoes, Chinese porcelain, Indian bronzes. It also welcomed spears, pots, moccasins, anything looted from the local Native Americans, as well as booty from the tribes of the west.
Nothing changed at the Peabody from year to year, but I never came to the end of it. The “displays” were crammed, glass-fronted enclosures that did no more than corral the stuff. The glass kept kids like me from fingering the bead work and pulling the trigger of the flintlock, so I had to do the fingering in my head. The exercise shaped me for life.
(The museum has been modernized now. One or two objects are presented in a case, hedged about with respectful placards that nail down their meaning for you. This is held to be educational.)
You do grow up eventually. You become one of the people with the keys to the display case, and – alas – it is up to you to create some kind of order. This is where lists come in.
At their best, lists come close to letting you finger the beadwork. Your shopping list for Christmas presents, say. You may cross things off, but I’ll bet you don’t scribble them into illegibility. Possessing your list, you possess Santa’s sack.
In your fiction, lists drop the reader in at the deep end. Enter a room, be submerged in the agglomeration of a character’s possessions. If you avoid clichés like garish sofa pillows or boring nineteenth-century paintings, your reader can meet an original character even before she walks onto the stage. (Avoid reverse clichés as well, e.g., you enter a room starved of eccentricity, geometric, neat, and suspicion dawns. You cannot trust the owner. He is either hiding something or deeply neurotic.)
Chris Holm, who won this year’s Anthony Best Novel award for his thriller The Killing Kind, says that lists are where he hides his clues. The villain, ransacking his pockets for his Porsche keys, might turn out used Kleenex, coins, a rubber band, half a paper clip, crumpled receipts, cookie crumbs, laundry lint. While the reader tenses over the frustrated get-away, that lint actually means….
Once you have spread your hoard out before you and made your list, you have a basis for elaboration. My hoard for one book includes a painting titled “Mom and Dad at the Gates of Hell,” a rhododendron bush heavy with rain in a square in Dublin, a wooden shack over a spring, papered with appeals to St. Bridget, a silver rack of hot toast, two vodka gimlets…. I have little idea where I’m going with this. I shuffle and rearrange the list to own my great delight; sometimes I push some items to the left of the page, to become categories, or to the right, to dwindle into mere fragments of scenes. I’m sure there’s a cosmogony in there somewhere.
Pile-to-list requires a critical mass. Two items, for instance will not do. Your middle-school English teacher’s quiz instruction, “Compare and contrast” misses the mark entirely, as so many of her instructions did. But if you sort and imagine, shift and juggle, keep the right things and toss the wrong ones, there will be a story.
Of course, you might make it on structure alone. You could outline your story first, sub-outline your outline, sit down, type it over with “the” and “is” inserted where necessary. No one could argue that you haven’t written a book. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code reads like a series of index cards, ordered plot points fleshed out with an albino monk here and there. He made $250 million. But I bet I’m having more fun.