People worry about the coronavirus: about testing, therapeutics and a vaccine. About drinking Clorox, Lysol or bleach with or without food.
I have my own set of worries, which keep me engaged. More than three years ago I started a new novel. Coronavirus caught up with me and now I realize that writing in the time of a pandemic can be a blessing of sorts. It’s like a having a job or an essential service to perform, and I feel as if I went to work every day. Except that I don’t have to wear a mask, or gloves, or booties or any kind of face shield. All I do is sit at my computer and write. My imagination is my shield.
The novel is based on my family’s history, starting in Eastern Europe a century ago. I want it to be profound. Epic. Include every family legend and colorful character I know. Leave no stone unturned. In doing so I fell into a trap: the one of overwriting, of saying too much.
Writers often complain about writer’s block. The white sheet of paper, the blank screen — words that don’t come out. Stay with it, is the usual advice. Persevere. Create a routine. Don’t read work that intimidates you.
I have the opposite problem. I write every day. Coronavirus is helping: no social interaction, no sports. The pages add up: one hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand and on. I realize it is too much. I have a loose outline and my memories, and I allow all this writing to flow out of me. Someday, when I finish, I’ll have my first draft and I’ll take it apart. I’ll identify the important scenes and rearrange them, and I’ll get rid of the fluff. I can do it. I know I can.
Fiction has to grab the readers and touch their souls. Too much background and corollary information is overrated and dated. Fiction exposes and illuminates; it doesn’t preach or explain. If one wrote a novel about the coronavirus in order to reveal today’s political mess in the US, one might have some immediate success, but in a few years, the relevance would be lost. Whereas if one wrote about the pandemic as part of the human condition — as Camus had done in The Plague — then you’re raising important questions and taking the right path.
Good fiction writers will keep just enough background information for the story to make sense. Never more, sometimes less. When skillfully done, the writer leaves enough unsaid for the reader to fill in the blanks. There are sentences in Camus’ The Plague that are deliberately ambiguous. Hemingway compares a well-written story to an iceberg. The explanation needs to be underwater, unseen yet understood. Only the tip of the iceberg — the essence — floats above.
That’s easier said than done. When I tell the story of a young Jewish woman in a small town in Northern Moldova at the moment when the Austro-Hungarian domination ends and the area becomes part of Romania, how can I not provide the historical and political context? But what if this is just one element, one building block in a much larger construct, at the base of a huge pyramid? The young woman has a sister, a mother, a lover, a child. She becomes a communist. Then communism disappoints and she abandons her dreams and escapes to Israel. The readers at my two writers’ groups believe that all communists had to have been either bastards or gullible and naive. I try to demonstrate in my treatment of the character that it is much, much more complicated.
I say to myself: when I finish, I’ll start cutting. I’ll keep only the essence and I’ll stay close to the core. I’ll make sure to pull the readers in and keep them engaged. But cutting out your own writing hurts. Oh, it’s as painful as cutting your limbs off, as tragic as killing your offspring. Cutting means rearranging, which, in turn, means rewriting, thus introducing new problems and inconsistencies. I think of all the time I have already invested in this project. To console myself, I now plan to reshape the material I eliminate into short stories, which is doable at least with some parts.
Here’s a scene to make my point: Kostea, a doctor and one of the main protagonists, is brought to a hospital by ambulance, after a car accident in a provincial Romanian town. He was in the car with Maya, his lover with whom he had just broken up when the accident happened. I describe the moment in two ways. Which one is better and makes more sense?
The ambulance stopped under the canopy at the main hospital entrance. Toni, who had arrived there first, had parked Kostea’s car and was waiting for them. He helped Kostea get out of the ambulance and led him and Maya to the reception desk, holding him by his arm and carrying their bags. “From the accident at Malul Alb,” he announced.
The receptionist rolled her eyes. “You took your time. We almost sent a search party for you.”
“Very funny. Did you look at the weather outside?”
“Funny or not,” Kostea said, “I’m wet to the bone and I need to change.”
“Sir, a nurse will take care of you in a minute,” the receptionist said.
“I don’t want a nurse.” Kostea frowned. “Look at my face and my chest. I’m injured, you see? Call the doctor on duty and tell him I’m Dr. Bardu, surgeon, Speranța Hospital, Bucharest.”
“And call a taxi for me,” Maya said. “I need to catch the night train to Bucharest. I’m Dr. Merinde, I’m not injured, and there is nothing wrong with me.”
“Oh, no, you’re a doctor as well?” The receptionist rolled her eyes for a second time. “That’s special. Take a seat, both of you, and someone will be with you right away.”
The two sat next to each other on the two green vinyl chairs by the wall.
“I see you are in good hands,” Toni said, turned on his heels and left.
At the hospital, Kostea made sure they knew who he was. He told them he had chest pain and insisted to see the doctor on duty. Maya waited standing a few feet from him.
The first version conveys more information. It introduces Toni, the paramedic and the receptionist. It shows that Maya is eager to leave and mentions Kostea’s damaged car. Toni and the receptionist are minor characters — this is their only appearance in the novel. What happened to Kostea’s car was already explained in the accident scene. Maya’s desire to leave could appear in the next paragraph, as well as the fact that the accident occurred in a place called Malul Alb.
The short version contains what is needed for the novel to proceed, which is what I will remember when I’ll get to the second draft.
There sure is life beyond the coronavirus and the walls that protect me from it, while the idea of a second draft drives me up those walls every day.
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