Sunday, September 30

Sometimes you find a story, of one kind or another, all piled up in one place. I just came across one of those, digging through a moving box for scratch paper: A folder, stashed in a corner, 50 pages of incidental paperwork, notes, blurry photos printed in black and white off some Hewlett-Packard or Xerox, fragments of other peoples' manuscripts.

In a way, the particulars of these things don’t matter much. If you’re anything like me, they’re usually dull as sin, about as interesting as unsolicited accounts of someone’s weird dreams or highschool sports career. Sometimes you’ll find something that could seed a narrative outside the machinery of your head. More often, these little sheaves of documents accidentally bound together in time-and-place are just keys to the shape of a story in your own mind, one that emerges from memory as you turn over the residue of the thought that preceded it, and the significance of which, if any at all, is utterly incommunicable.


I was reading the opening pages of The Great Gatsby the other night, and it seemed to me not for the first time that the novel is a form which has been bound for much of its history by the need to justify its own existence. Let me assure you, it frequently seems to be saying, that I am telling you all this for just and decent reasons, or least let me gesture, ritualistically, at the notion of plausibility.

And the thing is that it’s never these halfassed lunges in the direction of respectability that make a novel (or a memoir, or a collection of letters) much fun to read, or make it taste anything like the truth. It’s the details, the bits of concrete happening or sensation or extraordinary thought, that sell the thing.

This is why it is justified to keep shoeboxes full of birthday cards, and why we will all be impoverished if the accidental archives that we accumulate are supplanted by electronic records with a half-life measurable in months. This is why you have to write: The stories need keys for you to find later on.