Columbia, MO is nearly a ghost town, which means one thing: term is over, and summer is here.
Over the course of this last semester my wife and I have taught a course called “Chapter One” at the University of Missouri Honors College. It’s been great fun. We chose ten first chapters from across the canon, from Nabokov to Toni Morrison, and we discussed what what worked and what didn’t. We looked at the myriad different ways that a novelist can enter a story, and tried to work out why the writers had made the decisions that they made.
Throughout this time the students were also writing every day and meeting every week in writing groups – each of them was crafting their own first chapters. The second part of the course was spent workshopping those chapters (which were fantastic), and just recently our inboxes have been filling up again with revised drafts. It’s been interesting to watch how students dealt with and assimilated the feedback they received from their peers.
The irony in all of this is that so far I have written FOUR first chapters of the book that I recently sent back to my publisher. It’s such an intricate challenge, negotiating those first pages of a story. You need to entice and intrigue your readers, beguile them and beckon them on. You need to build a world that they can believe in, a place where they feel comfortable and to which they want to return. There are so many ways to begin even the simplest story. It’s dizzying. I suspect the trick may be not to think about it too much. (Which is a problem for me.)
I’m fond of all of the various false starts that I’ve made along the way. Even if they’re ultimately consigned to my trash file, they all helped me work out what I wanted to say. The substance of some of these chapters got reworked or integrated in other ways or places in the manuscript, but there was one attempt that was just ejected wholesale. I was quite fond of it, all the same, and so I’m posting it here. I recently posted this to Facebook with no explanation as to what it was. Some people thought it a short autobiographical essay; others guessed it was the start of the new book. So now you know: neither is true.
Last year I read an excerpt from this to a packed house at the annual convention of the Missouri Library Association and it went down pretty well – although it is all to do with books, so I was playing to the right crowd.
Books, my mother always used to tell me, are like butterflies.
I forget why, precisely.
Given her fondness for heavy-handed metaphor, I suspect it was something to do with how their beauty only really became apparent once their pages were opened, like the insect’s wings. Either that, or it was the idea of a butterfly flitting gracefully through the air, circling this way and that, making its meandering escape from the earth-bound world. The point being: crack open a book and you can fly away, too.
Whatever the reason, the image has always stuck in my head. My childhood home was bursting with novels, but rather than imagining books crammed on to the shelves that my father was always building, I thought of them as perched spine-downwards on the branches of a tree, pages rustling in the breeze, ready to take flight.
My mother was always rearranging her books. She had long ago dispensed with the pedestrian confines of the alphabet. Categorizing by author or title was of no interest to her. Instead she adopted a range of different taxonomies, depending on her mood. Subject matter, jacket color, font, likeability of principal character, time period, first or third person narrator, it didn’t really matter. She just enjoyed pulling those well-loved volumes off the shelves and placing them somewhere new. When she finished she would stand back with her hands on her hips and gaze in satisfaction at the new mosaic of spines. The lepidopterist, curating her collection. A few weeks later she would be at it again, feverishly moving her precious specimens around.
This relentless marshaling of her library was a crucial element of my mother’s steady but determined process of self-actualization. She had lived in her little corner of Maine for more than twenty years and it had been an age since she had met anyone new, but had a stranger crossed her path and asked her, so, Mary, what is it that you do?, she would have looked them in the eye and told them, I’m a reader. Not, I am a wife. Not, I am a mother. Not, I am a nurse to a dying boy.
My mother’s need to identify herself so completely with this one activity at the expense of the other roles she played was not born out of pretension so much as self-preservation. She found refuge and comfort in her books. They were counterfeit passports, false papers that gave her a new identity and sent her on unlikely journeys. She was alive to the promise of limitless possibility that lay in each fresh chapter.
This is who you are, the pages whispered. This is your world.
With a novel in her hands she emerged from the humdrum cocoon of her everyday existence and blossomed into an altogether more exotic creature. My mother had it wrong: it was she who was the butterfly.
When asked, she would tell people that her favorite book was the Bible, but most of the time my mother’s tastes were decidedly more lowbrow. There were no slim volumes of gorgeous prose for her, no plotless peregrinations about the bleakness of the human condition. She liked big, exciting blockbusters. Thrillers and romances were her thing, with Cold War espionage a particular area of interest (this was the 1970s, after all.) The shelves groaned beneath the collected works of Harold Robbins, James Clavell, V.V. St Cloud, Sidney Sheldon, Rosemary Rogers, and Jackie Collins. Most of the books in our house were as fat and heavy as bricks. Mom rarely went anywhere without one tucked in her (necessarily oversized) handbag.
When my mother opened a novel, an ethereal stillness descended on her body. She actually changed shape when she read. Her shoulders dropped; her spine seemed to unknot itself, paragraph by paragraph. Her right hand hung languidly by her side, not moving except to turn another page. To disturb her in this state was a perilous business. Requests for snacks or help with homework were met with deep sighs of disappointment. She would close her book with a reproachful whoomp and reluctantly get to her feet. I would follow her, anxiously piping my apologies. Those books might have been the keys that set my mother free, but to me they were just competition. I knew that when she hid her face behind those glossy covers she was somewhere she much preferred to be – a different world, one that was a long way from my brother and me.
Liam liked to read almost as much as Mom did, although he favored epic sci-fi fantasies, the thicker and more convoluted the better. Every week my mother went to the library and returned with a stack of new books for him. He loved to immerse himself in those alternate universes, preferring their improbable realities to his own. I often came home from school to discover the two of them in the sitting room, my mother perched at one end of the couch and my brother in his wheelchair, both of them reading so intently that they didn’t notice when I walked into the room. I would gaze at them in silence. They occupied the same space with such comfortable intimacy that I was unable to pull my eyes away.
I suppose I could have picked up a book and joined them, but the thought never occurred to me. That was Liam’s thing. Besides, whole books seemed far too much like hard work. I decided instead to focus my attention on individual words. I lay on my bed with the family Merriam-Webster, scanning the pages for words I didn’t know. All that new information filled my head, slowing my brain to a sluggish crawl and demanding to be used. I knew better than to try out my lexicon of willful obscurity at school – I would get nothing but mockery and Chinese burns for my trouble. At home, though, I became a vocabularic freakshow. Over dinner I would assiduously steer topics in a particular direction, solely for the purpose of shoehorning my new linguistic discoveries into the conversation. One night I showed a sudden interest in astronomy just so I could say the word aphelion. But my experiments were not without problems. The dictionary could be maddeningly obtuse sometimes. I was eager to try out apophthegm (I had started at the beginning of the dictionary) but I had no idea how to say it. All I had to go on was this:
I pored over this gnomic aggregation of symbols as if they were mystic runes that might reveal the secrets of the universe. I had learned the hard way that it was important to get these details right. I would never forget my father’s laughter the night I made reference to
the ˈeɪn(ə)lz of history,
when of course what I had actually meant was
the ˈæn(ə)lz of history.
But I persevered, and slowly became more adept at the whole thing (although my brother would still roll his eyes every time.) I kept working my way through Merriam-Webster, writing down the words I did not recognize and committing them to memory. Back then the dictionary was the only thing I ever read. I left my mother and Liam to their novels. Books were fine, I supposed, if all you wanted was entertainment. Words, though! That, I told myself precociously, was where the power and possibility lay. I was in training, gearing up, equipping myself for what lay ahead – even though I had no idea what that might be.
And that was the problem. I was a hot mess of inarticulate prolixity. I may have been a walking thesaurus, but the thing about a thesaurus is that it has no plot. I was full of ten-dollar words, but I had nothing to say.
It was Nathan Tilly who gave me the story that I had to tell.