Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tootsie Pop

One 4th of July, I was sitting in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena waiting for the sun to set so that the fireworks display would begin. I was 25, and I was in the midst of a quarter life crisis. I had told myself that by 25 I would have made up my mind about my career and I would have finished my first novel. Neither one of those things happened. My dogs were getting old, and I was also waiting to figure out how they would die.

So, here I am at the stadium, and a kid several rows ahead of me accidentally lets go of his white balloon. It floats up into the sky while he gets comforted by his mom. I was fixated on unfolding paths. Where was I going? How would my dogs die? So, while I was wrestling with these ideas, I somehow got it into my head that I would stare at the balloon until it disappeared. I wanted to see the end of the story. I wanted to see if it just got smaller and smaller until it became nothing. That was a foreign concept to me. I had never followed anything through like that before.

I looked. I squinted. My eyes watered. I never realized how painful it actually was to look up at the sky for any extended period of time. Over and over again I was tempted to give up. The balloon kept going higher and higher, and I kept waiting for that magic moment when the something would become the nothing.

I realize now that this has been an important theme in my life. I often say that nothing ever happens in my stories. The reason that's true is because I'm fascinated by the idea of natural endings to life, the limits of nature. Thinking about Wild Grass, both the title story and "Red Man, Blue Man" deal with that issue. The original concept of The Pagani Project--six people signing up to live forever--also deals with that issue.

But, like life, I question if this is an experiment in distraction. What happens to me (and I think what happens in life) is that our attention gets pulled in different directions as we wait to see how things naturally unfold. I can't pinpoint the balloon disappearing. It probably got dark before it happened--I don't remember. In my stories, I wonder if, as I'm pulling my characters closer to the limits of nature, I'm just adding in distracting scenes that make me stray from the path of finding what I'm actually looking for. The Pagani Project has an end, but it doesn't really deal with the moment of the disappearing balloon. Instead, as I was writing, I kept adding in scenes that felt real, and those are the scenes that fill the book. Maybe my search for the limits of nature has set me up to be distracted by my own natural limits.

What's Peanut eating? A green plastic fish with red eyes. He didn't swallow.


  1. This gets back to my difficulty defining "story." Is the story the balloon traveling until it's out of sight, or is the story all the distractions that happen while you try to watch the balloon? My work in progress is constantly fighting against this sort of drift and distraction. Is there a single, central action that I'm following? I don't think so. The story is sort of about people thrashing around in life, and outcomes are less important than how people feel about things at any given moment. Is this progress, or am I just fucking around with 80,000 words? I have no idea, Mr Malasarn. No idea at all. The more words I write on this project, the more afraid and mistrustful of the work I become.

  2. All of which makes me think that writers like Virginia Woolf, Nadine Gordimer and Alice Munro are really brave. Really quite very brave.

  3. As I was working on Pagani, there was that central action, but then my view of "real life" forced me to casually drop that central action about 3/4 of the way through the story. It was resolved without too much attention drawn to it. Then, I still had to get to the end of the book, so I found myself emphasizing other story lines that were started but not resolved earlier. It's what I keep doing and just once I should resist it to see what happens.

  4. I just finished a book that might have been trying to do the "nothing" thing, but failed. It takes talent and instinct, which I think you have. I think it comes back to tension, but it's important not to think of tension as plot driven or even character driven. It can be something completely different, even that "nothing." I find that in Woolf's work, as Scott said. She could write a string of "nothing" and it's brilliant.

  5. Michelle, You make a really good point about tension. That's something I always seem to focus on now, and you're right--it doesn't always have to do with plot or character. It's the pull that gets a reader from one scene to the next.