Desperately Seeking Anne Tyler: Starting a Novel and Looking for Inspiration

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Anne TylerI’m about to start writing a new novel and I’m slightly terrified.

What makes it so gut-twisting scary? I really have no idea. I’ve done it before and survived without any noticeable scars. In fact, once I’d started it was rather pleasant. I love spinning a story, birthing the characters who will best tell it, and building the set that will tether it to the earth.

Usually the idea behind it is some topic or theme I’ve been mulling and worrying over for months. When I’m almost ready to start I put together a bunch of notes: tentative family trees, possible floor plans, potential character names and their original meanings, sources for research, a list of questions for myself, things like “What kind of scotch?” and “Driver’s license?” and “What happens to Jackie?”

Nevertheless, the beginning, the moment before I put those first opening sentences on the page, always feels like being 15 years old and starting a new school in the middle of the semester. I don’t know my way around. All these people are strangers. The customs and traditions, dos and don’ts, fashion faux pas, appropriateness of bangs … it’s all critical information … and I know almost none of it.

The last novel I wrote did not follow my usual process. It came at me like a snowstorm, swirling suddenly out of the sky, blanketing everything I saw. I couldn’t NOT write it. And I had no preparatory notes, and found myself figuring it out as I went along. It was nerve-wracking, but also fun, always pedaling as fast as I could to keep the figuring one step ahead of the writing.

I’ve heard there are two types of writers (aren’t there two types of everything?): plotters and pantsers. Plotters, as you might guess, plot out everything ahead of time. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants (or as is often so often the case with writers, pajama bottoms). I’ve always been somewhere in the middle. This last novel set me squarely in the pantser category.

But this time there is no blizzard of inspiration. No story demanding YOU MUST WRITE ME IMMEDIATELY OR BEFORE LUNCH AT THE LATEST. I have ideas for several different stories I could tell—some semi-fleshed out, some just glittering flashes in my brain pan. I hope to settle on one in the next few days … and begin.

Looking for inspiration, I decided to do a little research on one of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler, and see what her novel-starting process is. Ms. Tyler, as you may know, is not exactly blogging on a regular basis. She doesn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter account or even (gasp) a website. In fact, the interview I found in The Guardian (Anne Tyler: a Life’s Work, 13 April 2012) was the first she’d given in person in almost 40 years! She was as delightful as I’d hoped she’d be. The article had this to say:

Her usual process for beginning a novel is to turn to an index box in which she has written ideas or snatches of conversations and left them to ripen for years (“and I mean years”), often passing the same card over and over until she feels she can make something of it. The planning stage always takes her “exactly a month” before her subconscious tells her “OK, enough is enough.”

That seems so reasonable and no-nonsense, doesn’t it? So very doable. She also adds: ‘It doesn’t take very long for most writers to realize that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you’ll never do it at all.’

A gentle kick in the pants for those of us using elusive inspiration as a stall tactic.

In the room where she works is a poem on the wall called “Walking to Sleep” by Richard Wilbur, which begins:

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given field glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.

So this week, I’m going to jump off that mental cliff, with the assurance that something will come to me, and with a little prayer of thanks to Anne Tyler for the nudge. As she so wisely says, “Enough is enough.”

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2 Responses to “Desperately Seeking Anne Tyler: Starting a Novel and Looking for Inspiration”

  1. Juliette Fay Says:

    April 21st, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    I like the ledger idea, Bob. You can just keep adding until you’re ready to commit. As for Ms. Tyler, I think the only way you can get to her is by sending a letter care of her publisher or agent, and I have no idea if she responds. I hope she does – good luck!

  2. Bob Conklin Says:

    April 21st, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Juliette, I liked your post about beginning a novel. I’ve also heard it related to beginning a relationship, always a dicey proposition. My modus operandi of late is to scribble notes and paragraphs and sometimes whole pages in separate yellow ledgers, each one devoted to something I think might turn into a novel. Then I pick up whichever ledger I happen to be thinking about that day and scribble some more. Some of my ledgers stall out for months or years, others keep going along tentatively, like a baby learning to crawl. Often what I think is going to be the beginning ends up in the middle somewhere.

    I, too, have recently been in search of Anne Tyler. I just finished Noah’s Compass and wanted to respond directly to her about it, but she seems to lack a web presence, as you pointed out. Anyway, good luck with your novel writing. Your method sounds like Virginia Woolf’s, at least as portrayed in The Hours. I recall reading that she would wait for the “apple” to be just ready to fall (in her mind) before putting pen to paper. Sounds like your “mental cliff.”

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