I spent six hours today, New Year’s Eve, writing and rewriting 600 words. One question I’m often asked is my daily writing quota. I’d love to write 1500 – 2000 words a day, but it’s often not possible. Feeling my way into the heads of my characters, getting them to speak as they should, takes time.
In the little scene I wrote today, V I is sitting in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel
One of her old friends, Leydon Ashford, who suffers from bi-polar disorder, has just fallen from a stone parapets; you can make out on the right side of the photo. The police, the paramedics, and Leydon’s angry brother have all come and gone. Here’s the text:
The police disappeared, along with the tourists. I didn’t know where Sewall went. I sat on the chancel steps, too depleted to think about what I’d witnessed. I found myself singing the alto line of Stravinsky’s setting for Psalm 39.
I had been in the chapel choir in my student days. Leydon never came to the service—she despised church services (“Too many Sundays with Jesus after breakfast and ‘by-Jesus, young lady, do as I say,’ after lunch. The outside of the plate polished so you could see your reflection, the inside full of filth and mire, you know how that goes.”)—but she liked to hear me rehearse.
“That’s Stravinsky, isn’t it?” A man had joined me on the chancel steps without my noticing. “Let me know my end and the number of my days. I’ve always found that a particularly troubling verse. Would you want that knowledge? It’s like reading the Iliad: you want to reach into the text and tell Achilles’ mother to stick his whole foot in the river. You see the danger and want to avert it but there’s nothing you can do.”
If I’d known twenty-five years ago what the end of Leydon’s days might look like—that launch from the parapet—what would I have done? Tried harder, probably, to change the ending, but the day would still have come when I would have walked away because Leydon’s problems were too difficult for me to handle.
“I’m Henry Knaub, by the way, the chapel dean,” my companion said. “The police called to tell me about that unfortunate woman who fell just now. It’s like talking to Thetis about Achilles: you can’t. Sometimes events have a tragic momentum that you’re powerless to halt.”
“It’s not my nature to be so passive,” I said. “I stood by, literally and figuratively. She was up in the balcony in the middle of one of her endless quarrels with her brother. I don’t know why I didn’t climb up and pull her away, instead of trying to talk her down. It was my calling to her that made her decide to try to fly down to me. The wings of a dove, she said.”
The dean nodded. “A group of German tourists were still with the police when I got here. One of them is an American Studies scholar and he said she was quoting from a lot of different sources, the psalms, Puritan sermons, even Joyce.”
“Leydon had—has—an elephantine memory. Which can make her riffs hard to follow and, hard to take. I was on her side, always, but I didn’t blame her brother for getting wound up. I didn’t know she was quoting sermons, or Joyce, for that matter.”
“The Germans say she saw someone laid on a catafalque. Portrait of the Artist; they’re talking about the death of Parnell.” His tone was apologetic, as if he thought I’d be embarrassed at having my ignorance exposed.
“One of the differences between Leydon and me.” I smiled painfully. “We both read the book as undergraduates but the language stuck in her head and not in mine.”
“Was she delusional? Did she see someone laid out on the communion table here?” the dean asked.
I shook my head. “She thought her brother had sent someone to spy on her. And then she thought I had killed the spy for her. It was all getting extremely—Gordian—in her favorite phrase.”
My cellphone buzzed in my hip pocket. I pulled it out—incoming from Max Loewenthal.
“Oh, my God!” I got to my feet. “I’m supposed to be meeting the world’s twenty-first richest person. Another thing that didn’t stick in my head.”
The dean stood with me. “The twenty-first richest person? How odd that they can be counted that way, from top down. I wonder if they know the twenty-first poorest person in the world?”
“I looked up the list this afternoon between meetings. Five of the top fifty are women. I don’t know if they could figure out the fifty poorest, but a billion dollars says they’re all female.”
The dean walked me to the west door. “I’ll be praying for your friend. And in return, if number twenty-one is feeling charitable, the chapel can always use a billion or two.”
He held out a black leather bag. “I think this might belong to your friend. I put in everything I could find, but if she’s missing something let me know; our cleaning crew is very good about turning in all the oddments people drop in church.”
Yesterday, when I started work on this passage, V I talked about wanting to stick her hand into the Iliad and get Thetis to put Achilles heel into the river. Actually, when I was a little girl and first heard the story, I was in anguish–it would have been so simple a problem to fix! Yesterday I had V I thinking it, but overnight, it seemed to me more appropriate for the Dean of the Chapel to mention it. Yet now, late in the evening, having revised this section for hours, I’m thinking it’s too precious a sentiment, that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. By the time the novel is finished, the dean may have disappeared from the story, as Achilles may have done. It takes time, a great deal of time, to see how a story sets, to see when the prose is pretentious, when it’s awkward. Even now, after working this over all day, I’ve had to change some of the text because seeing it up on the blog shows me more infelicities.
Now I’m going to stop changing prose and change myself, into my black Thierry Mugler evening gown, the one I wore to President Clinton’s first inaugural, and go out with my husband and two of our friends to ring in the New Year. May 2011 be a year of peace, health and joy for you and all who are dear to you.