WHERE DOES A NOVEL BEGIN? WITH THE HANDS. . .
For many years, I stood in the pulpit of classrooms preaching about writing’s power to save and damn, all the while not readily engaging in the practice myself. Sure, I wrote papers to achieve my degrees and handouts for my courses, but the body of my work had yet to be created. I teach my students that it is one thing to be a hypocrite and another to be one and recognize it. It was some time into my career before I faced my disconnection to the discipline.
On the morning of March 6, 2009, in Room 319 of a campus lecture hall, my story came to me on the back of a student’s hand. Stressed about the in-class essay for which I had instructed students to write on every other line in their compositions, the young woman in the front row had written—SKIP LINES—in black pen on her left hand, underlined a number of times. As she leaned her head on her hand and began to answer the questions, I stared at those two words.
Suddenly, I heard a voice in my head: Who the hell does she think she is asking us to remember to ‘skip lines’? Is that really important?
But the voice wasn’t mine; it was my imagination projecting the voice of this young woman (who was so polite she probably would never have uttered those words).
As if by instinct, I grabbed a blank sheet of paper and after a short time, one entire side was filled with lines chronicling a series about college. For some reason, the pen in my hand was red—not my normal choice of color for grading—and the ideas appeared as if they had been shed in my own blood.
Hours later, the story was racing out of my mind, down my arm, and to the hand that kept track of a narrative gone wild. When I got home, I opened a long-unused leather journal and wrote what will become one of the most memorable scenes in the series, but it won’t be reached until the final book. The story just kept coming that day and by evening, I shared the idea with my husband Matt. He asked how long I had been working on it. By then, it had been seven hours. After dinner, we went to Barnes and Noble where he bought me Moleskin writing books so that I could record ideas as they came. I now carry them with me everywhere.
I’ve become keenly aware of the possibilities of material all around me. I am hypersensitive to conversations, names, news reports, and all elements that comprise the calendar of daily life. I listen more closely, look more carefully, and think more intensely about what could be transferred onto the page. But I am also thinking beyond that—to other stories that have come without warning when a person, place, picture, word or object suddenly ignites a thread and the basic line begins. The thrill of the adventure is that I have no idea where it will go or when the sparks will occur.
Creating this series has changed me as a reader, a writer, and teacher. While the story initially goes back to the hand of that student in Room 319, the opening images may even trace back farther—to a black and white photograph of a young woman reading a book beneath a tree that I snapped during a yearbook camp in high school. The shot of the subject in her Indigo Girls T-shirt won me the “Best Candid” award for a competition, but that little picture would become so much more—a mirror of the future me and strangely, of my earliest college memory . . .
On a steamy August day back in 1991, I moved into Bates House at the University of South Carolina. In the midst of that tearful sending off with my family, in walks my roommate with her friends—fresh from the muddy, sweaty, and patchouli-saturated wonders of the Lollapalooza music festival. After completing those goodbyes with my loved ones, Heather asked me to ride to her house to pick up some things. Although unsure of this stranger and her gang, I agreed and climbed in her blue Honda: a car so tainted with mildew it remains a sensory biohazard, but the moment she turned the key, the sound of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” drifted from the speakers. “Do you like them?” she asked. I answered by singing every word with her—through the entire album and many, many others for all the special occasions we’ve shared since that day.
From these memories and from those to be made, I draw inspiration. This narrative thrives because of them, and writing it has taught me that in every detail lies the possibility for a story and in every person—a muse. As long as I watch for what hands create around me and listen to my own, the muses may be kind, sometimes cruel, but always about, and I hope the lines—those skipped and not—will reward readers in the same ways they’ve rewarded me in composing them.