photo credit: Michael Lionstar
Joan Wickersham's most recent book, The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf) was named one of 2012's best fiction picks by National Public Radio, Kirkus Reviews, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Her memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was a 2008 National Book Award Finalist. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and many other publications.
Joan writes a regular op-ed column for The Boston Globe and her pieces often run in The International Herald Tribune. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio. She has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony. You can access her nonfiction on Facebook.
|On Being Interrupted, or The News from Porlock
- This is a piece about interruptions. And about how they
Let's try again. One morning, brushing my teeth, I got an idea for a story called "The News from Spain."
I could see it whole—its shape, its voice. No details yet, but the entire thing illuminated in the distance. I didn't know how—or if—I would ever reach it, but we exchanged a promise. It would come to me or I would go to it; somehow the two of us would get together.
But my schedule was full. A magazine deadline. A parent-teacher conference. So, standing at the bathroom mirror, full of the sudden electric thrill of the story, I knew I wouldn't be able to start it right away. See you later, I said to the story, while the story, dejected, was already packing its bag and calling a cab to go to the airport.
The next morning, as I brushed my teeth, I suddenly remembered that I'd had an idea for a story the day before.
It was gone.
The idea, the story, the electricity, everything. The only thing left was the title.
"The News from Spain"? What did that mean? Why would I think to call a story that?
Even if you haven't read Coleridge, you've probably heard of the person from Porlock. He's the mysterious man who interrupted Coleridge's attempt to write down the poem that had just presented itself to him, magnificently whole, during a deep, druggy nap. Coleridge was feverishly writing, the person from Porlock showed up, and by the time they'd said goodbye and Coleridge returned to his manuscript, the embers of the poem—"Kubla Khan"—had cooled.
It was Coleridge himself who first told this story. And writers have been retelling it ever since, fascinated and appalled by the idea of this Porlock person whose interruption is fatal to the work. Whether or not the story is literally true, we all recognize it as the truth. The idea is there, in its sudden beautiful burning entirety, and then we go to answer the phone or the doorbell, or check e-mail or buy cat food or take a shower or sleep, and the idea is gone. Are we the victims of these interruptions? Or are we unconsciously wishing for them, hoping that something will come to take us away from the work—from the labor of it, and from responsibility for its inevitable failure to be as good as we hoped?
What might that poem have been? is Coleridge's implicit, desolate question.
But what really matters in that story of a lost poem isn't the poem. It's the loss.
- But you get it already. I don't need to keep demonstrating all the interruptions—you get that there have been a lot of them, as I've worked on this piece. There always are, for every writer, with every piece. Stuff gets lost all the time.
After "The News from Spain" disappeared, I tried frantically to recover the idea. Standing in the bathroom with toothpaste foaming at the corners of my mouth, I thought about the one time I'd been to Spain—an unhappy week spent in Mallorca with a college boyfriend.
Was this my lost chord of a story, magnanimously returning now to remind me of its desire to be written?
It didn't even interest me much, right then, as a story.
But as I put it aside, I was already thinking of a third story, which could also be called
The great biographer and scholar Richard Holmes writes about what he calls "the Coleridgean fragment," which "often contains the idea or seed for some much larger construction."
"Alas!" Coleridge says of "Kubla Khan" and other compositions gone astray, but you can also feel him saying, "Wow." He's interested in the way things get written: visions, interruptions, accidents, wrong turnings, misguided plans, what gets lost, and what is left.
His fragments, presented as bereft remnants of some greater, irretrievable work, may have originated in losses—but they are also works about loss, haunted by the elusive shadow-works that never made it to the page. For all its solemn cadences, each fragment-and-essay combination is also playful and quite modern, frankly confessing to its own brokenness and thus underscoring the point that brokenness is what it's really about.
"Like the carefully designed 'ruin' in an eighteenth-century park," Holmes writes, "it is a powerfully Romantic form of architectural suggestion or evocation, in which the visible part suggests the invisible whole."
- I built a book around that lost story—around its absence. A group of seven pieces. They were all asymmetrical, thwarted, elusive love stories; they were all called "The News from Spain"; none of them had anything to do with the week I'd spent in Mallorca; and none of them was the other, original story, the one that had first occurred to me and then gotten lost.
- Whether or not I eventually remembered what that first flash of an idea had been, my job was to not find it.