Turn and Face the Strange

November 4, 2019

I have several friends who make quilts, collecting scraps of fabric and deftly combining them to create something beautiful. The average person sees throwaway bits and pieces of cloth. Quilters see a work of art in the making. The whole, they know, will be much greater than the sum of its parts.

I read recently that David Bowie (RIP), one of my favorite artists, worked in much the same way. He would jot down a phrase, a fleeting thought, a kernel of an idea, then sort through his collection at some point and write a song based on the fragments he put together. He relished turning and facing the strange. 

I note this quality as an admirer, not an adherent, because I’m one of the most linear writers I know. I’m a storyteller, and stories generally proceed chronologically. Even if the device is turned on its head, say, through flashbacks interspersed with the main action, the narrative tends to unfold in a fairly logical and predictable manner. Even twists, if done well, make sense in retrospect. Point A leads to Point B, which leads to Point C, et cetera, even if the author takes a few detours along the way. By the end of the reader’s journey, the landmarks have been relatively well-defined.

I’m thinking about this now because my current manuscript is the least linear story I’ve ever attempted.

In a way, this is essential to the storytelling. The protagonist, Anna, a well-heeled young wife in 1940s Charleston, finds herself in a maddening fog after giving birth. Nothing is making sense, and the harder she tries to get her bearings, the more disoriented she becomes. Her thinking is clearly muddled in some way, but the reader doesn’t know how or why. Are external forces conspiring to make her question her sanity, and if so, with what end in mind? Are the afflictions of old family ghosts catching up with her, bequeathing literal or figurative wounds? Is everything she’s experiencing simply a construct of her own insidious imagination?

Everything about the novel is oblique, so my reality feels almost as surreal as Anna’s as I’m piecing together her story. I feel like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope, periodically turning it ever so slightly to glean a new, though distorted, perspective.

Fragments. That’s what I’m collecting to write this novel. Fingers crossed that the bits and pieces combine to create something solid.

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