The World Inside the Word
You wake up one morning and go out on the back porch for a smoke (the wife doesn’t like you smoking indoors, or at all, but most certainly not indoors, not with the kid in the house for sure, never indoors) and there it is, fully formed in your mind:
“Some days I am surprised by the sun.”
Just right then, when it tumbles out of your brain and into your consciousness, the reverse of the disappearing act demonstrated by ideas that come to you in dreams but crumble into nothing upon waking, it seems to you perfect. You can build a short story around it– no, no, forget that: it can be the memorable opening line to a great novel, the great novel, the one you always knew you had in you but never said anything about because it seemed immodest. It’s beautiful, elegant, instantly lodges in the memory; let’s face it, it’s a great line and the best thing of all is you didn’t even have to sweat for it. It was just there.
And that’s when you start to worry.
After all, nothing is ever just there. You begin to wonder if somehow you’ve picked it up from someplace, a subconscious plagiarism: and of course you mutter “all good artists steal” as cover to make yourself feel better, but let’s face facts. That’s a phrase that demands attention. People aren’t going to gloss over it. Especially if you put it at the centerpiece of your work, if you stick it in the opening slot of the Great American Novel. You put something you ripped off in that position and the only thing you’ll be remembered for are the lawsuits. And yet: you honestly can’t remember where you’ve seen it before, or even if you’ve seen it before. It could be original. Stranger things have happened. Someone had to be the first person to think up “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, even though it seems embarrassingly obvious now. Maybe you did come up with it, and why shouldn’t you use it, then? It is, you cannot deny, a beautiful thing.
Or is it?
Now you’re starting to second-guess yourself. Maybe it’s not so great after all: the “some days” thing might be a little calculated, the “I am” might be a bit precious, and where exactly do you go with the whole concoction, anyway? Under what circumstances (that you have a chance of writing something interesting or believable about) would someone be surprised by the sun? What is this guy (and why is he a guy? jerk), a prisoner? A spelunker? A mole? You’re certainly not surprised by the sun; you live in Los Angeles. You just came out here to have a smoke, for Christ’s sake. The entire thing is starting to seem self-conscious and arty.
You go inside and grab the little spiral notebook your wife keeps next to the phone, and you write it down. Not that you’re afraid you’re going to forget it: you just feel the need to see it in print instead of drifting untethered around your head. “Some days I am surprised by the sun.” It doesn’t mean anything. It’s complete nonsense, incapable of being welded to an uncontrived situation or a worthwhile metaphor; awkward, ill-phrased, juvenile. It’s an embarrassment. It’s nothing but a big fat pseudoreference; if you saw it at the beginning of a novel you’d leave the thing on a street corner and make jokes about it to your smarter friends. And yet you feel like you can’t just abandon it altogether: it’s gotten too much of your time already. You’re all wrapped up in it.
The question is, what to do with it? Maybe instead of metaphor you can take it in the exact opposite direction, make it as literal as possible: perhaps some kind of highbrow genre thing, the guy is trapped on some mining planet with unpredictable solar cycles and…bleah, just terrible. Even worse than before. You hate that kind of stuff. Could you do anything with the last word? Play with the sun/son similarity? No. No, you couldn’t, not and end up anywhere approachable or worthwhile. This is driving you insane.
“Some days I am surprised by the sun.”
You move to your office and fire up the computer, staring at the spiral notebook and playing around with the sentence in your head as the startup items load. You try rearranging the words, tightening them, expanding them, deliberately misspelling them. Idly you connect to the internet and fire off a quick blog entry about the sentence, and now: it’s gone. You’ve put it online and it’s spent forever; it belongs to the internet, and it can never be used for anything ever again. It isn’t your problem anymore.
You feel bad about it, just the same.