A Walk in the World*

A Sketch of a Fish

an introduction

Many people have said that writing is a particularly lonely profession — that we sit alone in closed rooms, quiet rooms, rooms that smell of memory and forgetfulness and the pressure of making “creativity” (whatever that is) happen.

To answer questions concerning the loneliness or privacy of artists who seek to create innovations in the art of storytelling, I propose making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist. I mean to tell the tale of that creative instant when we know that we have an idea worth preserving and that our relative isolation is an essential part of the task of narration. In solitude and in quiet, we seek entrance to the river of the mind and its intersection with the real world. We toss a worn line into the stream; the line wavers, minute after minute, sometimes lost to our view in the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until – you know the little tug — the sudden gathering of gravity shows itself: a glistening, living idea appears at the end of your line.

Any sensible fisherman will tell you to put that little shimmering speck of glowing mystery back into the water, so that it might grow bigger and then be worth cooking after some combinations of energy and sensibility and a complete story – the muscles and fat of narration — accrue to it. And that sounds like a good idea, at least for the fisherman, who, of necessity, deals in the future of things.

But, what about the writer on the weedy banks? To put that thing back in the stream is perhaps to lose it forever — or to take it home and preserve it uselessly but artfully inside a lovely, gilded vitrine, in a museum of sparks caught mid-air, where it will eventually fade away.

To bypass that museum of rapidly fading flashes of scraps of truth that go nowhere, do we then, instead, share it, in the open, in order to leave a trail of evidence that it existed at all? Or do we keep it to ourselves, behind the glass panes, wary of endangering the frail grasp that gravity has on it? Do we ask other fishermen about their specks of living truth? Are they curators or fishermen? I, myself, have said many times that I will NOT share any parts of my fictions ahead of publication because that will make it unnecessary for me to tell my story. The urge to tell will have been satisfied. But, I would like to ask questions orbiting the speck, questions of its consistency, its chance of survival, its later relevance. Its elegance or its shabbiness. I do want to know what other writers think or surmise or simply wish for.

What we put back into the stream of mind has already been changed since that first exciting tug. Our catch has been exposed to particles of air or particles of our own biases or invisible charlatans of our expectations. I think writers can be confident about the fisherman’s wisdom. We should not let the spark of an idea perish out of our fear of losing it. And such fears are realistic: we are like sailing ships, skipping over stiff wakes, always voyaging never arriving, above the unending streams of gold and silver, that original river where we found the little fish. Our shadows accompany us, spots on the bright stream; we watch them, speculating on human nature and the amazing world we live in. Our voyage can be the beginning, or the incubator, of the well-wrought word. We can go together only so far, but even trivial, quick companionships, like twin stars in the deep blue wastes of the star field, can make the whole burdensome process much easier to bear. We can help each other navigate. Or we can go it alone. Maybe conjuring nothing more useful or thrilling than the vision of a cat shampooing with hibiscus nectar because, as he would tell you, that is the best treatment for split ends.

It is my hope that writers can find companionship here in a room of our own (until we collect that fully-grown fish). That hope is the miniature fish I pulled out this morning. I have decided to return it to the stream, here. Even though the idea, like the stream itself, has already pulled away from view.

But, I remember.

Polly Whitney
Austin, Texas
January One, 2015

An Homage: I am indebted to Virginia Woolf for the metaphor I adopted/adapted, albeit for purposes different from her own. Her masterpiece A Room of One’s Own is immortal. That’s the difference.

*After the title of Roger Gilbert’s magical book about American poets of the past century: Walks in the World.