Some stories come easily, others are more obstinate. Or you are.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Egypt, trying to write a story that seemed very clear to me. It seemed very clear what I had to say and it was important to me that I write that story. In the story the protagonist hears that an older man, a person he has admired, and who has helped him to live, has killed himself. It describes his journey to the house where the grieving family is gathered, the very house where the suicide has taken place. It describes how they busy themselves clearing up the house, preparing for the funeral, and how the protagonist picks up a brush and sweeps and sweeps and sweeps and cleans, because it is better than talking, and anything is better than doing nothing on that terrible day. And it describes the funeral several days later, how he meets a woman who, on the walk to the graveyard, talks with him and signals her availability. He senses that he will sleep with this woman, and clings to this expectation. It means his heart is still beating, that something, somewhere, is as it should be. I thought of calling the story ‘In with a chance’.
I could not finish that story. Something was wrong. I wrote it and rewrote it and tied myself in knots and finally put it aside. I wrote other stories.
One morning, years later, for reasons I do not understand, I wrote the story quickly and effortlessly. It was very short, and I called it ‘Walking Away’.
It began: ‘Her telephone number remained in the pocket of his funeral trousers for over two weeks.’
I did not try to say anything about the suicide, because I was unable. There was nothing to say. I did not comprehend it. There were no words. Whatever art I had was insufficient. I did not even refer to it. All that was left to me was to describe the state of mind of the protagonist as he tried to deal with his grief and incomprehension. This, after all the attempts to say what could not be said, was relatively easy to do.
There is a poem by Jalal Al Din called ‘Story Water’:
A story is like water / that you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire / and your skin. It lets them meet, and it cleans you.
Very few can sit down / In the middle of the fire itself / like a salamander or Abraham. / We need intermediaries.
And this is what it’s about, this process of toiling at a story, until you can walk away from it, to be relieved by it, or even redeemed by it, for a little while. Our understanding is partial. This is our condition. We improvise.
This is what writing is. You are not trying to save the world, or even impress it. You are trying to get a grip. You are trying to find a formulation that however provisional, however insufficient, will release you.
As for all those drafts, I don’t keep them. I’d sooner save my dirty bathwater. They’re of no interest to me.