The Process- Grains

‘In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night.  But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one’s consciousness.’ –Rainer Maria Rilke

In the early stages of writing a new book, the process really is much like what’s described in the lovely Rilke quote. I will have a vague idea of what the book is about, but it’s all sort of lovely airy-fairy misty stuff, with nothing concrete—until the words start going down and become sentences, and then become paragraphs and chapters and parts. Usually I get what I call ‘grains’ some small thing from a few words to several paragraphs, which will be the centre around which a chapter will form. If a book is going to be any good though, and touch the reader in the way that it should—live and breathe for the reader—then I need to be able to find that ‘rhythm of the blood’ and also the heart of each book. For me that rhythm of the blood comes most naturally in the form of ‘grains’.

Often these grains will take the story in a totally unexpected direction- which is one of the things I love best about writing—never knowing where the journey might lead. So I’m just going to use a few as an example of how the process works for me.

(all these pieces are copyrighted 2017 Cindy Brandner).

Grain number one

This one came to me while I was out walking, I usually get my best ideas while I’m walking or when I’m soaking in the tub—water seems to be a natural conduit for those creative whispers from the universe. And yes, I do think the universe does whisper, in an infinite variety of ways. I truly never know where inspiration is going to come from.

a cold perfume…— yes, that’s all there is to this particular grain, just three words. I don’t know who it belongs to, or even which story it belongs to. I jot down the phrase and let it stew for a day or two, and then suddently the fragment enlarges a little to this—  “It’s like a cold perfume on the air, a scent that chills you to the bone and yet is inevitable at the same time.” I realize it’s being said, rather than thought, and I know it’s Yevgena who is saying it as soon as I hear the words in my head. Once I’m centred in her head, I can look out through her eyes and see what she’s seeing, and maybe then know what it is she’s talking about. She’s standing at the top of a hill, looking down over it- there’s something coming, something that worries her- that premonition is her cold perfume. It has something to do with a woman, not one she knows but one she will soon encounter—and that’s as far as the grain of sand has gone thus far. But it’s enough to get started with and I know the story will slowly gather itself, one grain upon the next, until hopefully there is a complete and glowing pearl when it’s done.

Grain number two

The small valley below was mysterious with shadow, the firelit hollow glowing like a fiery chrysanthemum in a pool of dusk. Longing seized her as well as fear—she wanted to go as she hadn’t ever wanted anything, but she dreaded it in almost equal measure. Something, some small voice she was becoming more and more aware of lately, whispered that tonight her life would change and that she might not like all the things that change brought with it.’ 

I knew this was Yevgena even as I started because that’s what I was working on- a short story featuring her. I was writing a bit where she’s in Ireland, after the war and her release from the concentration camp. But when I got inside her head for this, I sensed someone very young, still naïve, quite sheltered, not the woman I am used to dealing with who has a great deal of scar tissue in her heart. This is a young girl who has no idea what’s ahead of her just yet. I also know, just by looking through her eyes, that this is not an Irish landscape laid out before her, it’s a Russian one- thick with conifers, bigger in scope- this makes sense because Russia is where she grew up, until she married her Roma husband and took to life on the road. She’s looking over a valley she’s never seen before, and yet I know it’s not terribly far from her home. She longs to enter it- why? She also dreads it- why? These are questions that will need to be answered as the piece develops.  I know it’s going to be a night of great importance to her, but I don’t quite know why yet. Once the story unfolds in its entirety, I’ll have the answer to that.

Grain number three

All I had to start this was one line- ‘It was like a drowned mosaic…’ well, it’s a phrase really. It just kept a beat in my head for a few days, on and off, so I jotted it down and returned to it later, mostly to stare and wonder just what it was that was like a drowned mosaic. It sat like that for a few days, staring back at me like a phlegmatic frog, until suddenly it stretched itself out and took a small leap, giving me an idea of what it was about.pearlonsand So here’s the stretched out version-  ‘It was like a drowned mosaic, one of those ones sometimes found in Britain, sunk into an underground stream, the beautiful tiled floors with leopards and roses which the Romans had put in their bathhouses. The places where the tile had risen to the surface, and where the water was clearest were those moments—edged in crimson, leaved in gold—which were his life with Pamela and the children.’

So now I know it’s Casey and it’s his own thinking around his memory loss, and it’s clear he’s regaining bits and pieces but there’s still stuff in the dark. I need a sense of where this fits in the overall structure of the book though, and I don’t yet know. So if those are the bright bits of the mosaic, what are the darker bits?

The darker bits where the water was murky, were other things—things that were crucial to him, for he could not rejoin his old life fully if he didn’t know what had happened to him. He thought until he knew, until it all—even the dark and fear—came back to him, he would not be able to settle in, he would not be a full part of his family again. The doctors in New York had been of the opinion that he’d blocked it in part because of the trauma and that it might re-emerge when his brain felt safe enough to release those particular pieces of information. Either that, they’d said, or a sharp shock might do it.

So then I naturally wondered just what a sharp shock might be? Apparently Casey was wondering too.

When he’d enquired as to just what might be considered a ‘sharp shock’, he’d been told that running into whomever had done this—indicating his head—might just bring back his memory of what had happened. How one ran into a man, or men, who’d tried to kill you, without knowing who they were, was the question. There were old haunts of his in Belfast, places he remembered or about which Patrick had told him with concern in his face for just what Casey might want with such information. He hadn’t yet gone into the city during daylight hours, only a few times at night or near to it, the dusk hiding his face, his turned up collar, beard and low-brimmed cap, keeping his face hidden from those he passed. His size was a problem, not many men were as tall or broad of shoulder as he was. Still, he’d managed to pass unnoticed, if one didn’t count those that crossed the street to avoid him. With the beard, the cap, and the general nature of his presence (Eddy had once called him a forbidding bastard) people did tend to avoid him.

   So what did a man do then, if he felt he needed that sharp shock in order to see the other pieces of the mosaic—the dark parts, which would give him the full truth. Casey took a deep breath and watched the sun slip further through the branches of the oak. Aye, a sharp shock was likely what was necessary, a walk right into the heart of the maelstrom, otherwise known as republican Belfast. He only hoped the act wouldn’t get him killed. 

Now I have a solid start on a chapter, and also the lead-in to the four or five chapters which follow, which ends up being a solid anchor for that section of the book. Clearly, the top end will have to be worked on- he’s outside obviously (where he goes to do most of his thinking) and so I’ll need to situate him and have some sort of preamble to his thinking, possibly grounding it a bit with whatever is taking place in his life at this point. You see how those few words though became something much larger and how it became clear to me just where in the book this bit belonged. It’s rare I start any chapter at the beginning, I usually have to go back and ‘fill-in’ the top end of said chapter. The same goes for books, I generally have to go back and write the first few chapters once I’m done most of the book, though this book is presenting itself in a more chronological fashion than my norm.

One last grain…

She looked over at Jamie, his presence steadying her and banishing the vision of the workhouse back to that nightmare plane on which it lived. The fire left half his face in shadow and the other half touched with flickers of gold and red, painting him light-dark against the rough plaster wall behind him. She wished she could sketch him, could capture this moment with him and Kathleen, as if drawing the two of them would distill the moment and hold it, golden as honey, somewhere in time’s bottle.’   

An entire chapter grew out of this simple glimpse (and it was a glimpse in my head, looking at Jamie and knowing I was seeing him through Pamela’s eyes) at a quiet moment the two of them are having with their very new daughter. I’m not going to post any more of it here, because it’s too spoiler-y in nature, but this small piece ended up about two-thirds of the way through the chapter—so it grew in both directions, up and down. Sometimes a grain will grow quickly, other times it might sit fallow for months before I return to it and suddenly see what it’s meant to become. Sometimes I fret with it (like an oyster) on and off until finally it takes form.

I see the grains as that ‘rhythm of the blood’ because they are the naturally occurring bits of the story which give it life and make the characters breathe. It’s where the characters speak to me, in essence, and these are the building blocks of my particular ‘cathedral’.

In the following weeks—or maybe months considering how slow I am about getting blog posts together—I am hoping to write a few posts on various aspects of writing. I find it a bit hard to ‘tell’ how I write, (a natural teacher I am not) as I usually am so lost in the process that I don’t necessarily pay close attention to how I’m doing things. Maybe I’ll give myself some insight through writing these posts and hopefully you’ll enjoy them too.