In the writing of my current project, my instinct for a long time has been to let the reader in on the end (or the end of one character) at the beginning of my own story. I mean, if you are reading this blog, you already know what happens to one of my main characters. So, I’ve already blown any suspense. But everyone advises me against it.
I have read two books in the last month in which we learn from the very beginning that one of our main characters is dead. The books are A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
And looking at these two books, it now seems evident that I might need to include the word “prayer” in my title.
The first sentence of A Book of Common Prayer, “I WILL BE HER WITNESS,” sets up the story with a declaration of purpose. Our narrator is the only one this other main character can count on. Our narrator is a person we will get to know because she uses first person. But, the story is primarily about someone else.
John Irving starts his work out with, “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God….” It is a complicated sentence structurally that tells us a lot about the end and nothing at all.
And there is immortality at work in that sentence. In both sentences actually, including Didion’s. Our memories are immortal as long as we are alive to remember them, even if they get locked away in a vault of numberless boxes and the keys are nowhere to be found. Our memories live.
Replay “I am doomed to remember” and fill it in with your own slices of your life that will never die in your memory until you do (die). Starting a few sentences off today with “I am doomed to remember,” will make your day an interesting one I would imagine.
So, I am still left with the nagging feeling, that I need to start my story by letting the reader know that this is a book where we will lose someone that we get to know and like and sometimes dislike. We will watch her grow up before our eyes on the page and then poof, she will be gone.
Now that I am working on draft two, I am about to delete (remove to a file I won’t use again) about 80% of draft one. It is painful, but I have a better sense of the voice for my story. There are still many chapters to write, but now I know what needs to be in those missing chapters. If I am a writer, as I say I am, then it should be no problem to start from scratch. I can’t be in love with my words. They are just words.
It has to be the meaning. I can’t stop until I am in love with the meaning of the words. That’s when I will know I have been the witness that I am called to be.
Here is a poem I wrote at a workshop taught by Judyth Hill. I took one line from a piece by Mira Bai, a Hindu mystic poet from the 16th century. I also call out with my own name at the end, the way Mira Bai does in her work. This poem tries to capture some of Mira Bai’s ecstatic energy but this is based on me, my life. Yet, if you have ever been confused by someone you will love until the end of the world, maybe you can find pieces of you in here too.
“They live century after century,
and the test I set for them they have passed.” Mira Bai (with pronoun edits)
Were you alone when I met you?
Or, was she with you then?
The whole time.
Does she dance around you now like a honey bee returning to the hive?
For your eyes only?
Is she there in the mirror even as we speak?
I tell you I can’t see her.
You blush as she whispers in your ear, tickling your fleshy lobe.
So, are you alone or not?
You slip in and out.
Disguised. Robed. Walking
in the moonlight.
Your back to the world.
Your face unseen.
And she is a mystery too.
Except to you.
Lovers coupled in the shadow,
charmed by the cactus in silhouette.
Stiff sentries fending me off.
I follow. Searching for you
in the low lying mountains.
And there you are.
Pleading with her at the end of the unlit path.
I shout to you.
“There is no one at your side.”
Your face falls, but then you smile.
I reach for you, begging.
You recede into the spines of the saguaro.
You beckon me to join you
in the house of god-cut crystals
where the horizon glows.
“Look at how she glistens” you tell me.
I stumble. I bleed.
“Yes,” I say.
and then, “Anything.”
Kelly says: Lead me under the stalking moon. Veil me like a bride, blind to what you see.