Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cellophane, should have been my name.

by Kevin Guilfoile

Last summer a barely noticeable thing happened to me and the other day I figured out how it fits into the novel I'm writing.

It was morning, probably the middle of June, and I was going for a walk with my two-and-a-half year old son. We stopped by the Farmer's Market and picked up some blueberries and then walked up and down a few neighborhood streets. I kept my eyes open for recently posted For Sale signs and Max cleaned the front yards of dandelions as we passed. A woman ran out of an apartment building, late for work. She smiled at us and then turned in the opposite direction and we heard her footsteps disappear behind us.

Max and I turned the corner and walked to the bank. My son loves cash machines. The other day my wife asked him if he knew how to spell "money" and he said "C-H-A-S-E-A-T-M."

We turned another corner and headed for home. A woman was opening up a flower shop, hauling gardenias and gargoyles and garden gnomes out to the street for display. She stood and spun, facing us now, only six feet away, and I recognized her as the woman running out of the apartment just as she recognized us as the father and son in front of her apartment and for a fraction of a fraction of a second I saw paranoia in her eyes. Not because she felt she had anything to fear from this suburban dad and his son, but because I was a stranger who knew more about her than she wanted. This morning I had accidentally learned where she lived and five minutes later I had accidentally learned where she worked and thanks to a name tag on her apron I knew her name was Dianne and she knew not a damn thing about me. And that imbalance, that asymmetry, is the fuel of paranoia. If only for a half-serious instant.

It's not a very interesting story. I doubt I even mentioned it to my wife when she came home from work that night, a pretty good indicator of what a non-event it was because when you spend your days exclusively with toddlers you tell your spouse everything, just to practice conversation with an adult. In fact our pre-dinner discussion each night usually consists of a detailed accounting of bowel movements. Both Max's and mine.

That it didn't make the conversation cut is to say that the flower shop story is pretty bad non-fiction. But that brief, unconscious moment of fear and uncertainty could be an excellent element of fiction.

There are a lot of ways to describe what a novelist does, but this seems to me to be as good as any. You notice all the things that don't seem worth noticing--you write them down and remember them--until weeks and months and years later they finally add up to something that is. You take completely unrelated, unimportant events and you line them all up and give them a new context and place them in the care of invented characters and you see if they really are pieces of the same puzzle. And if they are you take the pieces apart again and reshuffle so the reader can have the thrill of seeing how they fit for herself and that's the thing we call a novel.

That's what it feels like today. Ask me tomorrow and I'll tell you a novel is something different.


guyot said...

Um, okay, Guilfoile, get out of my head.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

After that photo, Guyot, right back at you.

Phillip said...

Great pearl of wisdom - the writer as philosopher's stone of the trivial.

Pete said...

Sometimes, fiction is stranger (or more interesting) than truth. For me, one of the joys of fiction-writing is being able to take observations of such mundane actions (running into this woman twice in a short period of time, in two different locations) and conjecturing a narrative to fill in the gaps.