by Sarah Relyea
As New York City was gearing down for a long COVID-19 pause, I found myself on a bench in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with a new friend. It was a gorgeous spring day, and people strolled along, having fled the neighborhood’s shuttered coffee shops for the park.
Things were changing, unprecedented. That sunny Saturday, we were struggling with a new awareness. We imagined that the pandemic would pass in weeks, not months, and we would come through—assuming we did come through—with another story calling to us, asking to be told.
Steering the conversation away from our current fears, my new friend spoke about her fascinating and unruly past, which included working with war-scarred teenagers in another country. Facing long, canceled days, she now thought of writing about her life. But, she asked, where should she begin?
I’d been through the process myself. My novel was due out in June, though COVID-19 had thrown me a curve, for sure. So many plans gone awry!
Time to improvise. Writing tends to be that way. Pandemics, too.
You can begin anywhere, so get started! For now, take the path of least resistance. Write those scenes of passion, anger, or loss that impel you forward. A novel is a marathon, and you’ll need to preserve your strength for the harder part—shaping and connecting your scenes once they’re on the page. That’s the macro part, though even those large connections come in small bits. Every object on yesterday’s page has the potential to erupt in tomorrow’s scene—not because those objects contain some self-fulfilling meaning, but because your job is to weave them into your story, to shine your light and capture their cubist glory.
The Magical Number Seven
At any moment, our brains can hold seven bits of information. Not seven complex ideas, but seven bits—the magical number seven; a telephone number. What does that mean for a novelist or memoirist?
You may enjoy planning ahead, but it’s mostly an illusion. Your most useful planning happens in bits, as you create scenes and gradually fill them in, word by word. You’re constantly moving between the micro and the macro—seven bits of micro, repeat for three hours, then seven bits of macro as you jog in the park. Grand leaps are illusions, too. You create them in bits and must tame them in bits before they’re gone. It’s a race against time before your brain moves on through the flood of magical number sevens.
Let’s face it—Heraclitus was right. You can’t step into the same river twice. Not only is the world changing, but your brain will never hold the same thoughts again. Stability is not something we are, it’s something we create with difficulty and enormous effort. We create books, as we create ourselves, through our struggle against the flood of present moments, the chatter of unholy meaninglessness, the randomly firing neurons that produce the seven-bit deluge that we call consciousness. We struggle to shape meaning from today’s deluge: “How many new cases today? How many deaths? Where is the epicenter? Is the epicenter here?” We don’t know what’s in our minds until we begin to shape it. It’s not there to be discovered; it’s there to be created, moment by moment on the page.
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Sarah Relyea is author of the upcoming novel, Playground Zero, a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Her first book was the nonfiction Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. Follow Sarah on Facebook and Goodreads.
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