Maybe I've been in California too long, a place where people consult with dog psychics (that would be: humans who communicate with canines, as opposed to dogs who can predict the future) but I'm getting more and more attuned to the wonderful weirdness that is our world, when it comes to the creative process. I'm starting to believe more forcefully in the forces that are beyond my comprehension, and how they shape the work I do as a writer.
What I've been working on, for the past few months, is a rewrite of a novel I thought was finished last summer. It wasn't, it had further to go, and spurred on by the encouragement of a producer friend who'd like to see the project have a life as a movie, I've been deeply immersed in reshaping, revising and re-envisioning the work. It's been the first thing I turn to when I wake in the morning, and often the last thing I'm looking at when I finally drop off into sleep.
When you're in the flow of such a process, the stuff of the story has a way of insinuating itself into all the interstices of your day. Humans tend to focus this way. Ever noticed, for example, that when you're moving, and packing things up is foremost on your mind, somehow wherever you are, whatever you're doing, all you see is boxes? Well, when you're carrying a novel in your consciousness (or a screenplay, or any kind of story in whatever medium), everything you see, hear, or experience tends to relate to it.
So it was, about three weeks ago, when I was awakened in the morning by some particularly chatty birds outside my window. Even before I was fully awake, actually, within that ephemeral realm where I was simultaneously dreaming and surfacing into consciousness, the sound of the bird noise and the memory of a specific bird from my past was melding with a notion of the emotional state of the protagonist in my book, in a scene I'd been ceaselessly massaging the night before. There was a transition needed, a beat that hadn't come together yet, and I woke up suddenly inspired with a way to make it work. I got out of bed, padded into the living room, picked up pen and journal and started writing.
That my novel is somewhat autobiographical is no big secret. Over four years ago, my Italian wife Claudia left me and America, moving back to Rome; my short-form, oversimplified headline on what ended our marriage is "the transplant didn't take." This life-shattering event was the catalyst for my book, and much of my real-life experience has found its way into the fictional text, which, you'll be happy to hear, is a lot funnier than living through it was. It's a romantic comedy.
In the novel's opening chapter, my American protagonist Jordan's Italian wife Isabella has just flown back to Italy, and he's in the throes of despair, alone for the third night since her departure. What's killing him is the awful silence in what had been a formerly (happily) noisy home. What was giving me a technical problem was getting Jordan out of that scene; I needed an effective transition from that moment to the morning scene that follows it.
What the bird chatter outside my window had reminded me of was a character from my real-life courtship days with Claudia, a figure I hadn't thought of in some time. What I wrote down that morning three weeks ago was a distillation of something that really happened to us, metamorphized into a new fictional moment for Jordan, a means of getting him into bed after a torturous night, so that he'd end up literally and figuratively in the right place for his morning scene -- prone on his back on the floor of a yoga studio. Here is the passage as it now appears in my finished draft, following a paragraph where Jordan bemoans the silence his wife has left in her wake:
"...Careful what you wish for, though. There's this bird who took up residence in the tipu tree when Isabella and I courted, singing at the top of its tiny, inspired lungs night after night, a real artist with a prodigious range, his operatic aria the score for our own athletic ecstasies, just as impassioned and unceasing. We called him the King of Birds, fantasizing that he'd flown here from the Land of Love, drawn by our wild romantic energy. He's shown up every fall since, the renowned avian tenor returning to the scene of his debut triumph, and tonight, when I'm ready to hit myself over the head with the nearest blunt object to bring on the sleep that's been eluding me...
He's back. I hear him out there, doing his scales. And I want to welcome his presence as a sign, a divine message from the kingdom of the ineffable, heralding Isabella's inevitable return, a magical proof that our love really is eternal, but in the current circumstances his once masterfully virtuosic scales sound crazed and desperate. He's like some berserk child's toy left broken outside, accidentally kicked into gear to incongruously run out its batteries, a midget madman reading from a sundial by moonlight, telling the wrong time to nobody who's asked. Not the lullaby I need, as I fall onto my appallingly wide and vacant bed.
AS I LIE flat on my back, toes flexed towards my head, arms reaching out with fingers spread wide, I'm aware that there's an undulating rainbow of leotards writhing in slow motion on the yoga mats around mine..."
You may have noticed that I used the phrase "finished draft." Indeed, I'm happy to report that last night, at around 2:30 in the morning, actually, I dotted the last "i" and crossed the last "t" in the completed manuscript, having incorporated all the minor page notes from my producer (who had essentially signed off on this latest draft) and my own last-lick revisions; I handed it into him this morning, initiating a xeroxing marathon.
But last night, exhausted in that 2:30 zone, I was still printing up pages, the actual writing work finis, when I became aware of a noise outside that had been subliminally underscoring the Imogen Heap music burbling from my desktop speakers. I had to turn the music off to be sure that I could believe my ears, and then, starting to laugh, I opened my front door to hear the unmistakable sound of a logical near-impossibility.
Reader, I couldn't make this up (though it happened as I was printing out pages of a novel called Making Up): the King of Birds was back for the first time in at least a year, perched in my garden tree beneath a full moon, singing away in his uniquely recognizable trademark style. It was him and no other (Claudia and I actually taped the guy once, years ago, so believe me when I tell you that I'd know that voice anywhere), and I can't help but think... well...
Was he heralding the end of our saga? Singing me a little thanks for having been immortalized in print? Or simply reminding me, mere mortal, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy? I'll note, by the way, that his was a one-night stand; the King has left the building and all is quiet out there this evening.
At any rate, I surrender -- I'm giving myself over to what cannot be explained, and welcoming what's mysterious into the room. I'd like to extend my visa for a longer stay in the realm of the inexplicable...