Down at the beach, my dog, Louie, follows his impulses in a crooked line – runs down to the water and into the surf, investigates a piece of kelp, lies in wait for another dog then runs with her in ellipses. (Is an ellipse a sort of crooked line?) He’s the one on the left in the picture. Me? I’m walking in a straight line. Out of the picture. Boring. And, as I go, I’m contemplating writing about walking in a straight line.
Now I am writing about writing in a straight line. Which I don’t. I write the way Louie navigates the beach.
How I envy writers like Marge, with whom I once worked. Marge sat down with pen and paper and, after thinking, began to write. One word after another. What she wrote was right and perfect with perhaps an occasional caret to indicate an added word or a line drawn through a word that she didn’t need.
Or M. Louisa Locke, who writes an outline before she begins a novel and sticks to it. What comes out is logical, original, and coherent, full of life.
I? I am about to switch metaphors to illustrate the metaphor of the crooked-line writer. I start a project by rummaging through my mental attic, not even sure what I’m looking for in those trunks whose contents I am only dimly sure of. And I’m not always sure what the object (idea, word, memory) I pull out of the trunk is or what I will do with it. The vulnerability of the knob at the top of a backbone. An antique padlock. The color of fire. The two people walking hand-in-hand down the alley, each looking in a different direction; eyes aren’t meeting, but hands are – why? High note on a flute. A parrot. A paleontogist excitedly talking to students about a 48-million-year-old fossil. Two surfers standing next to their boards, one with a tattooed arm. A rabbit saying it’s God. And so on.
After I’ve assembled the pieces in no particular order, I throw some out because I know they will not fit. Then comes the ball-of-string problem (the crooked lines, miraculously joined together, have become a ball of string – you can see why, can’t you?): how to create a linear piece of writing from it all. The string intersects in myriad ways with itself. The minute I lay it out, the connections are gone or become forced. M. Louisa Locke has another name for the problem – a plate of spaghetti. (Perhaps those writers who seem to be straight-line writers deal with the ball of string in their heads before they start putting words on paper?)
Though I’ve been mainly writing fiction these days, last year I published a book about the movie dog, Rin-Tin-Tin and his owner/trainer, Lee Duncan, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star. Putting it together involved assembling many balls of string, unraveling them, making smaller balls of string, unraveling them . . . This piece is beginning to resemble a ball of string itself. Maybe an example will straighten it out. Here it is. For the book, I wrote an essay based on more than a dozen early twentieth-century dog training sources, not knowing how I would use it. Then when I had written more of the book, I unraveled that essay, cut it up, straightened the pieces out, and used it to show, for example: that German shepherds were popular during that time of upheavals partly because their police-dog training represented law and order; that police- and war-dog training (jumping, scaling walls, attacking) especially suited German shepherds to be movie action heroes (which partly explains why Rin-Tin-Tin, a dog, could compete so successfully with human stars); that it was very likely Duncan probably was not completely honest when he said he used only kindness in training Rin-Tin-Tin since all the sources advocated the use of pain as a training tool at least some of the time. In the end, I threw away some great stuff that just didn’t fit. That pained me, as it always does.
I think I’ll take Louie to the beach and walk in a crooked line. Maybe even run.