As a fiction writer, I’ve been intrigued by how something of apparently little consequence, whether overheard, experienced, or imagined, can generate an overwhelming desire in me to start a novel, becoming an “essential,” as Alice Munro puts it. The American Heritage dictionary defines essential as “Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.” In my own work, I’ve been surprised at how that seed or essence implants and then grows a story within which the seminal force may be buried, perhaps forgotten as I write, but still traceable.
Begin with Overheard Conversation
For instance, once I was in a cluster of conversation at the California Historical Society where the director, standing near me, said, “The Pomos had a name for everything.” This comment describing how the Native Americans would name features of their landscape—rocks, trees, hills—struck me as incredibly beautiful and powerful, and served as inspiration for what several years later became a contemporary novel set in Northern California. In the manuscript, a character speaks the incidental line of dialogue—I wanted to retain the novel’s seed within—but it’s the reverence in the context of the statement that guided the making of the story, which became not at all about Pomos, but much about people loving one another and living with a sense of place.
In the Introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro reveals the seeds that germinated several of the selections. The revelations are brief, suggesting only an image, conversation, person, or situation that sparked the stories, and they’re fascinating. Munro’s clues to her stories’ beginnings tease me to want more, to follow her from where the sprouting began to the full bloom, to guess how the seed spawned the story. Perhaps this guesswork is risky or misguided, but it’s also instructive.
Begin with a Gesture
“Simon’s Luck,” Munro says, began with “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens.”
Begin with an Image from Another Person’s Memory
Two pages later in the Introduction she says the story “came from a story told me at a party by a man who had been hidden in a railway car, as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War.”
Begin with a Hybrid: One + One = Much More Than Two
Here we have a hybrid, a common occurrence in writing. Putting two or more essences together sparks a more complexly layered story. In Simon’s Luck, Munro gives her character Simon the railway car story for his own. Simon meets Rose, the story’s protagonist, at a party for faculty of a community college where she teaches drama. Before meeting Simon, Rose had been in the bedroom of the party’s hostess and observed the hostess, the girlfriend of the host, kneeling by a basket containing a tortoiseshell cat suckling four tiny, blind kittens. “’That’s Tasha,“ the girl said. “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.”
Simon and Rose strike up a conversation and, through subsequent narration that includes the railway car story, we’re taken to a scene in Rose’s house, where she is in bed with Simon after the party, and she is telling Simon he is lucky to have survived. Simon is a sexy, attentive man, ready to fix her furnace as The Humble Workman, or make “triumphant smacking noises against her navel” as The Mad Satyr. Rose allows herself to fall for him. He cooks “a remarkable supper from the resources provided, while Rose did nothing much but stand around watching, and change the sheets.” He offers to plant her a garden, digs up the yard, and works the soil. She is delighted with him and cries out, “Oh, Simon, you idiot, you’re the man for my life!” She expects him to call her and return the next weekend, but she doesn’t hear from him.
Hurt and unable to face what she perceives as abandonment by him, she leaves her rented house and drives, abandoning her life and the phantom of love. In Vancouver, “Luck was with her,” and she lands a part in a TV series. A year later, she discovers that Simon died of pancreatic cancer, something he’d had for a long time.
Where does a seed go? How does it grow into the story?
The railway car story seed is easy to trace, but what happened to the girl bending over the kitten basket? Where did that essential image go? An essence is hard to put into words, which is why people write thousands of words trying to get at just what is there in a gesture seen, felt, and remembered.
The dialogue line could be a clue: “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” Or there could be a clue in the lines of narrative: “She knelt down by the basket, crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected…” and “Rose knew by now that when she found people affected, as she did this girl…it was usually because she, Rose, hadn’t received and was afraid she wouldn’t receive the attention she wanted…she might be doomed to hang around on the fringes of things, making judgments.” Here, perhaps, is a build on the essential image, a way of understanding Rose’s character. She needs attention: Has she been poorly mothered? Abandoned? We learn Rose has a seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, who has a paternal grandmother. No maternal grandmother? And where is Anna living? With her father, Patrick? Not with Rose. Has Rose neglected her? We learn Anna is “so silent, so fastidious, so unforthcoming” with her Rose.
Lesson: Write & Read to Discover Psychological Underpinnings
Do the potentially abandoned kittens resonant in Simon’s character? We know he was separated from his mother at an early age. Is it his sense of abandonment as well as Rose’s that keeps each of them from allowing their feelings of a weekend to flourish into a real relationship, no matter how short or long term?
Waiting for Simon’s call, Rose tells herself, “Better lose him now.” She’s fantasized that he’s gone to Europe, camping, or to get married. As she drives, she imagines that maybe he’s turning into her driveway at that very moment. But she argues with herself: “Even so, even if that were true, what would happen some day, some morning? Some morning she could wake up and she would know by his breathing that he was awake beside her and not touching her, and that she was not supposed to touch him.”
Now we learn more about poor Rose. “Never since Patrick had she been the free person, the one with that power; maybe she had used it all up…” She imagines that if she were with Simon, she’d hear him one day at a party telling his railway story, saying, “And then I knew I’d be all right, I knew it was a lucky sign.” She imagines Simon having power over her to hurt her. In leaving, she avoids giving him that power.
Lesson: Enrich Meaning through Narrative and Action
We’re told from the start of the story that Rose “gets lonely in new places.” She easily abandons home, easily gives up her own power. She’s done it before. Will she do it again? Munro puts us in the car with Rose as she drives away from the pain of what she perceives as Simon’s abandonment of her. She finds her own luck in the TV show, the new start, but it appears she’s repeating her patterns. In the end, when she learns of Simon’s dying, she thinks it unfair, preposterous, that “even at this late date [she] could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.”
The story’s essence comes from that basket of kittens, vulnerable and completely helpless to prevent being abandoned, and the mother cat, powerless to overcome an instinct that if her kittens are touched, she will abandon them. Rose’s fears—of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of truly giving and receiving love—make her powerless and helpless. She is the cat and the kitten.
See “Gatekeepers & Story Seeds” for more Munro.