1. I’m a formalist.
Not in the sense that I always write in accepted forms, like sonnets or sestinas (though I do, more than occasionally), but I’m a formalist in that I write in forms. I like some sort of constraint to keep my mind occupied and to give my subconscious direction so that my writing doesn’t run away with itself, take up residence in a foreign city, and fail to answer phone calls.
See, I write without an outline. I may only have a vague sense of where I’m going when I start writing, or I might have an image in mind that I’m trying to reach, or it might be that I know the ending, but not at all, really, what leads up to said ending. A formal structure means that I don’t have to know exactly where I’m going or all the steps along the way because, as long as I fill in that structure, all those larger details will take care of themselves.
Or so I tell myself. And it’s worked so far for two novels.
2. I’m also an experimentalist.
I get bored with tried and true formulas and, well, forms. So with each thing that I write I try and attempt something different, try to stretch myself writing-wise, creatively, formally, etc., etc., ad infinitum, amen.
With my work-in-progress, that form and that experiment has taken shape in looking at the novel as a series of rooms. Each chapter is a separate room and stays within the confines of that room. So far this has worked. And it allows me to cheat around my desire to not know where I’m going by having a list of rooms that I’ll be drawing from for future chapters, such as the abattoir and the failed museum.
To give you an example of how this room thing works, I present this selection, in which Joseph, Cindy, and the pickers (Michiko among them) have just entered the concert hall where they are supposed to meet the chorus. And just so you can mentally picture the following scene successfully, pickers are disembodied arms.
The moment they’d entered the concert hall, the sense of fear and oppression they had felt in the labyrinth had evaporated. As Joseph looked around the room again, he was surprised at how much relief he had felt. The concert hall looked like something out of an old horror movie like The Phantom of the Opera. Everything appeared to be just on this side of disrepair. But not through use. No, the room seemed as though it had never been used since it had been built, the wear and tear on the painted walls, on the sculptures decorating the ceiling, the chairs and the stage, all of the damage purely a result of age.
Or maybe from disuse. Joseph remembered his father telling him that some things can only be kept in good working order if they are regularly used. He had been talking about engines, but Joseph wondered if the theory could be applied to other objects. Tools, for example, grow into their use, the handle of his father’s hammer shiny and worn with years under his father’s palm. And maybe chairs, too, were kept sound by the fact that they were needed, that bodies sat in them and settled the various parts into each other with a person’s weight, the nails grasping tighter, the wood being forced together. And if chairs, if things that weren’t just mechanical, weren’t just tools, then why not the purely decorative? The gold-leaf wallpaper in the concert hall, now dingy and dull, perhaps with people sitting in these chairs, an audience watching a show, some purpose fulfilled by the eyes glancing over the surface of the walls, perhaps the gold would be shining now.
But the truth was that everything here was fallen. A picker climbed onto the wooden boards of the stage. Wherever it moved, dust rose from the stage like steam.
Then the lights went out and, at the same time, a spotlight fixed the picker on the stage. It stood up, and it moved its hand around like an antenna searching for a signal. If there were an audience in the concert hall, they would be laughing at the sight of the picker, how it perfectly embodied slapstick, the backstage crew member suddenly caught on stage and expected to perform.
And then there was laughter.
From all around Joseph, it was as if an audience had been sitting in the seats the entire time and had only been waiting for the show to start. He tried to see through the sudden dark who was laughing, but his eyes were still adjusting. He imagined dark forms in the seats but couldn’t make out any details. Where did they come from? And how did so many get into the room without making any noise?
He started at a movement at his side, but it was only Cindy. He noticed her smell first, like that of a tree. It was the first time he noticed that she had a smell, but it was so familiar he must have been smelling it all along but only noticed now because, dark as it was, he couldn’t see the details of her face.
“It must be the chorus,” she said in a whisper, but the moment she started speaking the laughter stopped so suddenly it seemed as though she were yelling the last few words. Another spotlight flicked on to bathe the picker onstage in even more light. The picker moved first to one side and then the other, but the lights followed it. Moisture glistened on its skin. It was sweating, a fact which surprised Joseph. First Cindy’s smell, now the fact that pickers sweat. How much he didn’t know about the world around him.