Friday, February 5, 2016

When a Beginning Is Like Boarding the Wrong Train

Get used to beginnings and their implications. If you don't, you'll find yourself in the ever widening gyre of repetition, of the ordinary, the uneventful, with nothing to pique your curiosity or keep you from that soggy state of settled-in routine.  Green Jello on weekdays, red Jello on weekends and holidays.

There is much similarity between beginning a new project and getting on a train service in a major population center, say Boston, or New York, or the Metro in Washington, D.C.  You get on with a destination in mind, perhaps even an expectation of meeting a particular person or attending a particular event. You don't have a complete picture of the outcome any more than you have a vivid picture of how the story or novel will end.

Boarding or starting has the side effect of collateral enthusiasm.  Here you are, in New York or Boston, heading for a meeting. Here you are, starting a story that has come to you from a combination of random effects, leaving you enthused, dazzled, a bit stunned by the audacity you see attached to the story.  If this story goes the way it now seems to be going, it could be for you the equivalent of Catch-22 for Joseph Heller, or My Antonia for Willa Cather.

You may see an acquaintance in the train station.  "Hey, man, where you off to?" And depending where you are, you throw out an address, "666 Fifth Avenue," or "Catching the afternoon game at Yankee Stadium."  

If it's not the train you're taking but instead a project, some writer friend might ask, "What you working on?" And you might, in you enthusiasm for the project, say something you're bound to regret, such as "My equivalent of Catch-22," by which it is understood you are not comparing yourself to Joe Heller so much as you are bragging on your  project in a true enthusiasm for the work.

You board the train or you start the new project in a near trance state of anticipation and self-awareness beyond the ordinary, the clack of the wheels on the tracks or the sound of your fingers moving with authority over the keyboard adding a sense of adventure to the enterprise. But something begins to nag at you.  The things you see along the way are not the same things you saw when you were last on, say, the D train to Yankee Stadium or the famed Boston Red Line to South Station.

The voice and emphasis that seemed so perfect for the new project has turned to a mushy sounding narrative.  You feel as though you've just spilled coffee all over yourself as a result of some sweeping gesture of enthusiasm.  The reason becomes clear.  In your enthusiasm, you boarded the wrong train, began the wrong story, are even as you realize the problem, accelerating away from your entry point, borne along with a growing sense of helplessness.

For some time, you feel helpless, embarrassed, vulnerable, desperate not to be recognized. But there is, after a while, something familiar about this. You've felt these same feelings of disorientation and vulnerability before, crouched in your own shadow until you began to recognize the sight of your body and extended limbs.

If the beginning is a true beginning, the symptoms are quite legitimate; you are disoriented and vulnerable. Born and with a brief recess, raised in Los Angeles, at one time, you knew all the bus routes, knew how to get from where you lived in west central LA to the extreme southeast border of Los Angeles County, the port of Long Beach, for thirty-five cents. You knew the best places and worst places to hitch a ride, and when you got your own car, knew where to get eight gallons of gasoline for a dollar.

Good luck with any of that now; LA has trains, tunnels, and metro that would bewilder you even though you know the street names and neighborhoods. What once was has relevance now only should you chose to write an historical account. You know aspects of your last stories and your last novel, but were you to set forth on a new one, you'd have that same sinking whirl of doubt you've had with each successive beginning that was not a remake of the previous one.

Compared to many of your friends, you're only a so-so traveler.  Nevertheless, setting out on a new trip means a completely different set of expectations based not only on past experience and present-day information but on your financial, emotional, and professional status. You have to ask yourself:  If you don't feel lost at least once, whether starting a new story or driving to visit your eldest niece and her husband in Santa Fe, you haven't really begun; you're still playing off the last story or the last visit.

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