But where exactly had it gone wrong this day? Probably when my brother-in-law-to-be, Ward DiBaptista, shouted at me to move the Tahoe so it wouldn’t rut the yard, or maybe just after that, when my fiancée’s entire family made…
I once read Janet Malcolm on the difficulty of starting a piece of writing (so I’ve just now gone and pulled down the book, The Silent Woman, and found the passage on pages 204–205 of my 1995 Papermac edition): “Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind.” This seems like the right way to present the dilemma: how to overcome the infinitude of language and phenomena and possibility in order to actually put something down. This condition leads to what Malcolm calls “the fear felt by the writer who cannot risk beginning to write,” the fear that she might exclude the good and important stuff.
She advises the writer to “fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee.”
Linger; don’t flee—a writer’s wish for the reader.
This purge, Malcolm believes, must take place at the start, when the temptation is to cram in all that the author knows and wants the reader to know.
Malcolm’s prescription makes me think of a transcript I read of a Q&A session with William Faulkner at University of Virginia in the late ’50s in which he said that the germ of The Sound and the Fury was the image of Caddy’s muddy drawers (I just immediately found it and opened it in another tab). That he, Faulkner—the king of accretion—could spin out the whole of The Sound and the Fury from a pair of dirty underwear suggests that sometimes a single guiding image might be useful in avoiding early overabundance.
There was one image for “Little Squirrel,” that of Franks’s truck’s tires rutting the field.
Franks parks the truck where his future brother-in-law doesn’t want him to. Everything else in the chapter flows from this situation: Franks’s defiance, insecurity, posturing, overreaction, misreading, even the rutting of the dogs and the rutting of Franks.
This image, for me and for the chapter, has enough significance that I could use it thematically. Someone like Franks would fixate on such a moment, divine meaning from it, work it over and over in his mind, continuing to believe that everything could have gone differently if only he’d moved the car. The image contains the chapter and winds through it, and the action ends up with Franks stuck and the tires bogged in the field.
TIM HICKEY is a founder and manager of Tangier Island Oyster Company and lives in Washington, D.C.