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Posted Jun 30 2011 9:58am
A reader writesIt would be interesting to me to hear about the genesis and transformation(s) of a project as big as a novel. I'm wondering how you settle on a theme or problem--and how you manage to contain it.

It's funny because lately I've been reading short stories (Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Maile Meloy, a debut collection by a friend that will be released next year, the Alice Munro in last week's New Yorker), and thinking how difficult it must be to write something as short as that and feel satisfied, feel able to walk away from the characters and their lives. That said, I did, and still do, find the commitment a novel requires daunting. But once its particulars have grasped hold of me, I am compelled - almost always pleasurably so - to follow them to the ends of the earth, or at least to the end of the narrative.

Genesis remains mysterious to me. I am unable to will an idea for a novel into being. I remember, as a kid, being "in the mood to write," and begging my mother for an idea: "What can I write about?" The play with language came relatively easily; finding a subject was elusive.
As an adult, this is how it works for me: something will start to glimmer at the very edge of my field of vision. In the beginning, if I turn to look at it head on, it will vanish. But if I go about my business, obliquely attending to the glimmer but respectful of its initial shyness, it will start to burn brighter and gather a bit of solidity. At last I am able to regard it head-on, and this is when I start to interact with the idea, the characters, the events - experimenting with interpreting them, ready to retreat if my interpretations feel off, ready to course forward if they feel right. In this way, writing narrative is not so different from the work I did twenty years ago, before my first book, when I briefly supported myself as a sign language interpreter.
Interpreting is something we all do - daily, even - no? We cotton on to the inarticulate thoughts and meanings flickering at the periphery of our awareness, and sometimes we try to give them form. How many times today will you find yourself engaging in the act?
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