Although I sometimes fantasize about renting one of the empty stalls at the Cross Street Market and working on my novel there, as a kind of performance art with proximity to oysters, fresh Utz chips, sashimi and egg salad, I don’t really like to talk about my “process” too often, unless it’s to mock writers who talk about their process. But today, as most people drift away toward the weekend, I am thinking about my — you’ll pardon the expression — aesthetic.
I have completed 40,000 words of my next novel, close to half. This first part comprises twenty chapters, which alternate between the present-day and a few weeks in the mid-80s. As currently structured, the book begins in the present. But it also could begin in 1984. The present-day section is long (by intent) and meant to mimic the slow, dreamy, underwater feel of certain summer days. The 1984 chapter is disturbing, capped off by an act of violence. Which should come first?
As I’ve been thinking about this today — glass of wine at my side, my concentration pretty wrecked by the necessity to drive through a lot of Baltimore traffic this afternoon — I can’t help thinking about the scene in Mildred Pierce, in which Veda, Mildred’s daughter, auditions for a new piano teacher. Veda plays a Rachmaninoff piece, breaking off with a “petulant chord”:
“‘I always wanted to play it that way.’
‘I’ll tell Mr. Rachmaninoff when I see him,’” says the teacher, Mr. Hannen.
Later, he has her play the piece as she wanted to. “‘And suppose you did play it that way. You’d be in a little trouble, don’t you think?’ He played another chord or two. ‘Where would you go from there?’
Veda played a few more chords, and he carefully played them after her. Then he nodded. ‘Yes, it could have been written that way. I really think Mr. Rachmaninoff’s way is better — I find a slight touch of banality in yours, don’t you?’
‘What’s banality, sir?’
‘I mean it sounds corny. Cheap. It’s got that old Poet and Peasant smell to it. Play it an octave higher and put a couple of trills in it, and it would be Listen to the Mocking Bird almost before you know it.’”
I don’t know the Poet or the Peasant, much less Listen to the Mocking Bird, but I think there’s one way of writing this book that is redolent of Eau de Poet and Peasant, and one that’s not. The trick is to figure out which is which.
Or, as Cole Porter asked, how do we know if it’s the real turtle soup, or merely the mock?
Anyone have any tips for their own personal smell tests?