(C) 2011 SK Kalsi
It is often said that writers don’t choose their material. Chosen for them the muse arrives during unguarded moments--a solitary walk through the John Muir woods, cutting a tomato for a sandwich at 2AM, swimming in the Pacific during high tide. There is something about the feel of coursing water, the sound of a knife’s edge on wood, the flight of crows flopping through the redwoods that stirs the muse awake.
In my case the arrival of the muse always coincides with a feeling: Fear. A sentence arrives from nowhere and plants itself in my mind, forcing me to acknowledge it. The sentence burdens me with a responsibility to shoulder its meaning, forcing me to reveal all its implications. When I write it down and glance it over, contemplate its shape, there seems to be something indestructible about it. I read it again-and-again, slowly coming to terms with its meaning, yet I understand nothing. What the sentence forces me to do is acknowledge its existence on the page. It implores me to acknowledge that it doesn’t belong to me, and this knowledge terrifies me; because it makes me ask myself, whose words are these?
Sometimes the fear corresponds with another feeling: Elation. But it isn’t the elation of sex, or consuming chocolate, or riding my motorcycle too fast on the highway, but elation of another kind, that of falling through space. A sentence, like poetry arrives, as Neruda said, “in search of me,” and finding me, I add, I confront an existential choice, either to accept it or reject it. If I accept it, then I must also accept what I don’t know, because the sentence demands I discover its meaning through context (where does it belong?) If I reject, then I reject something essential about truth, or, perhaps the relevance of truth to shape my future.
I like to say the modernists ruined me. Having always loved lyrical novels--Mrs. Dalloway, The Sound and The Fury, and Lolita, once I had read enough of them, I thought I should like to write one. Lyrical novels freed me in a way not unlike riding a motorcycle too fast on the highway, or swimming in the Pacific at dusk; both activities, involving risk, are fraught with danger, but also involve sublime thrill. I tried to write a lyrical novel once and gave up by the thousandth word. I gave up and then I stopped reading. I tried to forget the feeling of freedom and danger and for years I wallowed.
When I discovered Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, then Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and most recently Paul Harding’s Tinkers, their words reawakened in me the love of language. Yes, I thought, this is why I wanted to write, to show identity through language, and to provide readers with the experience of living. These three novels did for me what I suppose Moby Dick did for writers two centuries before. They inspired through a detail rich prose with incredible specificity, philosophical/metaphysical speculation. Who knew this was called Maximalism? Once again, I thought, I would like to try and write a lyrical novel, a Maximalist one, one whose language soared. But where to start? How? Whereas Robinson, McCarthy, Melville explored my shared themes--time, memory, identity, death--too in awe of their style, I tried to avoid their kind of novel. Their writing for me was a kind of scripture; so to mimic them seemed like sacrilege. Their novels seemed not just informed by the muse, but possessed by her.
So I tried writing something else. Something easier and inauthentic. I failed because it was inauthentic, not true to my passions. I needed to embrace my fears if I wanted to be a writer with something to say. The lyrical novel nipped at me. But I still had no idea where to start. Or how? Still, I lunged forward. Begin with a sentence, I thought. It can start anywhere. It can also start from one's influences.
When I set about writing my “little” lyrical novel, I knew nothing about its subject. Having just a setting in mind (Northeastern, Pennsylvania) and an event (a terrorist bombing) I knew I wanted to tell a family story. I wanted to write my “little” lyrical novel in a “big” way, by mining my own past, teasing out the moments, delving deep into memory and subconscious, and have the story be informed by philosophy and poetry. But I also wanted the novel to be accessible. I knew I needed to employ lyrical language to explore the emotional, spiritual and physical landscape of character. I knew I wanted to explore the idea of intertextuality that Jane Smiley wrote about in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Novel. She wrote that each work that comes after refers to the one that precedes it. Works are rarely written in a vacuum. So I didn’t need to venture too far to discover which books spoke to me: Housekeeping, Tinkers, Moby Dick, the poetry of Rilke, Dickinson and Neruda, and as far as philosophy went, Emerson’s essays on Transcendentalism.
In his essay “Nature,” Emerson writes, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.” Here it is, I thought, the key to my “little” novel’s essence, the history of a town, the biography of one of its residents. Emerson later writes, “Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” Here it is, I thought, the essence of my narrator’s point of view: Voice would be character. My narrator could know things he was in no position to experience, such as the intimate thoughts of his grandfather, grandmother, and other people he never met. He could also identify with nature so completely as to disappear into it, even become nature, and through it experience the eternal. Like my own fascination with nature, he could look at it as a cipher of the spiritual.
In these aforementioned works I found all my themes explored with masterful dexterity. They satisfied my obsession with time, memory and identity. They continue to satisfy my passion for style and voice: style, that perfection of a point of view; voice that revelation of character. But still, one question remained, how would I make it mine? How could I put my own stamp on it? How could I go a step farther? Again, all I needed was to look within.
Being a former musician, I had always been drawn to the musicality of language, rhythm, cadence, meter; but I also appreciated musical structure, i.e. the way a song came together. I deeply appreciate music that explores feelings of grief and sadness and loss, and revere songwriters who explore themes of love, impermanence and death--musicians drawing from personal experience to lend their songs moral veracity. So my “little” novel would do that. It would embrace personal experiences, nonfiction, poetry, and prose, thus uniting the various genres within a university’s writing program. So, what you have before you is the labor of a two-year’s labor of love, frustration, anger, disappointment, ecstasy, hatred, fear, and respect--for Somerset, the character and Somerset the novel.
Thinking back, the sentence that arrived, in search of me, turned out became the final sentence in the book, “Outside the morning is quiet as a crystal.” When I first wrote it, I had neither a conception of its meaning, nor any idea where I would place it in the novel, and certainly no idea what the novel would be about. It was that last sentence that lead me to the first, “I am Somerset,” which bears relation to Housekeeping’s “My name is Ruth,” which bears relation to Moby Dick’s, “Call me Ishmael,” and the rest as they say is history--a history of memory and family.
Above my writing desk, on a shelf of books, I keep several sentimental and inspirational objects: a piece of anthracite from the coal fields in Hazleton, a smooth misshapen black rock I once found on the shores of Little Nescopeck Creek, a tree made of wire and amber beads from Lithuania, a 1920’s L.C. Smith and Brothers typewriter, and lastly a wooden sculpture from Indonesia. The sculpture depicts a young woman with four arms leaning against a throne of feathers. One arm holds a book, the other dangles freely, and her other two play a tiny guitar. She strums notes with her eyes half shut. One of her feet brushes against a swan with its wings fanned. She is The Muse of Music.
I sometimes wonder if while writing the novel I received her messages. I also wonder what the novel would be without her subliminal influence--perhaps empty, bearing no gifts which permit the experiencing of fear and joy--a vacuum, where waves never churn, wind never bleats, where emotions lay mute in a landscape that speaks to nothing and no one.