Under Construction

Claire Fuqua Anderson

Dec 16, 2012

Across the street from my apartment, men are building a house. Over the past month or so, I've observed through my living room windows one mysterious construction process after another. A steamroller ran over the old blue bungalow, and then a man in a hardhat pulled pipes from the debris. The ground was hosed and leveled. Loud trucks came and went with concrete, pipes, lumber. (There's even a Porta Potty service truck that stops by to suck up the sewage into a portable tank. The things one can learn by staring out one's window.) Last week, a whole crew of guys showed up to erect a blond skeleton, and whoosh, up it went in a day, spanning the entire lot with what appear to be fourteen-foot ceilings. On any given weekday afternoon, half a dozen men balance on various beams, hammering in their jeans and ball caps while I am nestled on my couch in pajamas, not twenty-five yards away, holding the highest of aspirations to work on my novel. I can hear their shouts and the clapping sound made by their piles of wood as I type and delete, type and delete. These men are quite obviously working. They confer about plans and issue orders and delegate tasks and lift and haul and build. They are too busy to notice me as I notice them. And if they could, if they cared to, what would they think? Given my posture (of the lounging ilk), my unprofessional dress, and my frequent taking of breaks to make pesto/granola/salsa--how could they think for a moment that I might also be at work? At times, too infrequently, I recognize the luxury of doing work of the mind, books and letters, the work of imaginary worlds. At other times, building a house seems a more gratifying job. These guys don't bat ideas around for hours; they don't try out one type of beam to see if a wall will stay standing, then pull it down and try another. The blueprints do not get revised after the foundation dries. Nobody gets to work on the roof before it can be supported. I envy what I imagine to be the assuredness they feel about the task at hand, confidence that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. And at certain deluded moments, I envy the satisfaction to be found in physical labor, muscle soreness as proof of day's job done. Because how, exactly, does anyone write a novel? I have long hoped to be the recipient of this well-kept secret. At readings and bookstores, I wait to be ushered aside by some wise, graying author, who hands me a stack of ancient parchment tied up in a bundle and says, "This is all you need to know." Or one of these days in a writing workshop, the teacher will draw a series of shapes on the board, turn around and say, "Here it is. The key." If writing a novel were like building a house, a group of skilled people would get together and follow explicit instructions in a specific order in accordance with a predetermined schedule. The plot craftsmen would work on plot; the sentence guys would come in later on to tweak the sentences and make sure they all work. Dialoguists would be on call. We wouldn't get lonely or frustrated or lose sight of the big picture. We would do the next thing. We would know where we were going. There is no one map through the course of writing a novel, but hundreds or thousands or millions, it seems, each suited to its writer, the peculiarities of the story itself. Many brave writers who have lived to see the other side of a novel (and then go on to write another one? Seriously?) have offered their advice in the pages of craft books, during Q&As, in emails and texts and conversations, and I'm grateful for any tidbit that may help guide me through a first draft. Aja Gabel's post here a couple of months back comes to mind. One method of outlining I use and recommend comes from Robert Olen Butler's lectures transcribed in From Where You Dream, as it seems both sufficiently flexible while also lending structure to the whole flailing-in-the-dark feeling. He suggests "dreaming" through the novel by writing images on notecards and arranging them in order before writing word one of a draft--and later, while writing, being willing to add, cut, and rearrange the cards so that the outline morphs as the story does, as it's being written. Maybe that's why it wouldn't work to write a novel like building a house (or, for that matter, to build a house like writing a novel). We must be willing to go at what we've already built with a sledgehammer, over and over again, if we want to house more than a single family of readers in our chambers. Alas, I fear that the secret to writing a novel is discovered only in the writing of the novel itself. Damn.