July 15, 2016

Notes from the Tunnels

By Liz Bedell

Liz BedellI spend most dawns curled up on the ratty old sofa in my study, trying to find the red thread of narrative. Some mornings I clutch at it convulsively, willing its taut energy to remain long enough to guide me out of the labyrinth’s depths, away from my Minotaurs, and onto the page. On gentler mornings, I watch inky blue fading to rosy promise, breathe deep into my belly, and settle in to discover where writing will bring me.

I view these morning sessions as a practice, a limbering exercise to get my writing fingers moving again, whether in rote scales or unanticipated melody—I am open to both.  And so it’s proved—I write for between an hour to an hour and a half, usually finishing around 6:30, sending a flood of words onto the screen and remembering to hit save just often enough. Often, I begin by letting my mind play through the “remember this!” notes I made the previous day—the absurd lineup of six Priuses along one edge of the Coop’s parking lot, the honking laughter of the man behind me in the movie theater, the lithe grace of the child running at full tilt across the field. What emerges aren’t full scenes or even character sketches, though I’ve come to understand several dim characters in my novel far better. But it’s vital, quicksilver work, work that will make story and scenes quicken later on. For some reason I have faith in its worth.

In these mornings, I am tunneling. Virginia Woolf coined that term as she was writing Mrs. Dalloway, noting her “discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor and depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment” when it is needed in the novel. From her diaries, it seems that for Woolf this tunneling took the form of forays into characters’ minds and thoughts, playing with style, voice, imagery, and scene. For me, it’s involved writing lots and lots of letters, between a Parisian wife before she became a widow to her trench-bound husband, from a callow French boy to his English summer-chum, etc. And diary entries, galore.  And official telegrams. And so on.

All couched in words that tumble through my fingers, forming story, twisting together in a sturdy cord that pulls me from each night’s depths into the confident morning light, lighting my path through tunnels I did not know I was making.

—Liz Bedell is a Northampton-based writer and editor who is at work on a novel set in post-World War I France. She taught high school English for many years before leaving to focus on her own writing. She also works as a freelance editor and writing coach and runs creative writing workshops for adults and teens. Check out her website here.

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