Against Frugality

Posted on Fri, Mar 24 2017 9:00 am by Patrick Nathan


In this morning’s paper, the front page story is an exposé on the widespread use of no-knock warrants. Under the pretense that announcing a narcotics raid would give suspects a chance to dispose of illegal substances, SWAT teams throughout America are given judicial authorization to force their way into homes without warning. In one anecdote, a police officer—after kicking in the door of a house in Cornelia, Georgia—lobs a “flash-bang” grenade into the darkened living room, designed to surprise and disorient suspects in their sleep. The grenade lands in a playpen. The nineteen-month-old baby sleeping inside, the article assures us, lives, but not without, on that night, “a long laceration and burns across his chest, exposing his ribs, and another gash between his upper lip and nose. His round, cherubic face was bloodied and blistered, speckled with shrapnel and soot.” Elsewhere in the newspaper, a traveler in northern Quebec collects mussels with the local Inuit, who wait until the tide recedes from the bay near Kangiqsujuaq, chip through the ice, and climb down into “a beautiful, eerie world of bending ice, glowing blue from the sunlight outside.” Just try to forget these stories.

In my day to day life, I find these gems everywhere. The compulsion to collect them is unavoidable. I want to say that novelists covet reality, but I don’t think that’s it. I don’t crave reality so much as images of reality. Clipped from their context and vulnerable to the mischief of juxtaposition, images have more license—more value—than reality. You read about something, you hear about it, and you absolutely want it. You must have it. Often, this is how stories and novels begin, with the author’s glimpse of something she can’t unsee. In a famous example, Nabokov describes the “initial shiver of inspiration” behind Lolita, “somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Now that I think about it, Nabokov’s choice of words—his “shiver of inspiration”—point in another, more intuitive direction. Perhaps what you want, as a fiction writer, is not so much the image as what’s behind it. Of all the bricks stacked together in a wall, there’s something about that one, right there, that calls to you, that promises a treasure behind it.

When I was first writing the novel that would become Some Hell, it was these images of reality that proved most distracting. What if I wrote a story about this instead? I’d ask myself, perusing that morning’s paper or taking photographs as I walked around a lake. Fiction is everywhere, and the more you pay attention the greater the compulsion to write it down. I was more naïve then, and I told myself I had to stick to the story I was trying to tell—this novel with its specific circumstances, characters, motifs, and all that other “craft” stuff. I hobbled myself, writing one boring draft after another that I’m glad, in retrospect, to have written, if only for the hard lesson, but whose hundreds of thousands of words, put together, were literally a source of pain: I nearly gave myself carpel tunnel trying to figure out why my novel was so bad.

At that time, I was already familiar with the Beckett quote that should have led me out of the dark, but I couldn’t see how it applied to the novel I was trying to write. Speaking of the Irish shadow that loomed over him for most of his early career, Beckett mentions the moment at which he gave himself permission to step out of it: “Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.” Unimaginatively, I thought of “synthesis” as patently Joycean—sprawling, polyphonic, formal experiments whose testosterone-drenched details seem to scream, Isn’t this groundbreaking! I loved (and still do) Ulysses, but I knew that it wasn’t what I was writing. Fortunately, a mentor of mine, somewhere between my seventh and eighth drafts, suggested I try writing a different ending, almost as a lark. I wouldn’t have to keep it, of course, but it would be fun, he said, just to see what I did with it. When I took him up on that, it was in that new ending—and in the subsequent rewrite of the entire novel leading up to it—that I included all of those disparate images. Everything that had caught my eye; all I’d wanted to try—no matter how unrelated it seemed, I viewed this as my chance to use it. Miraculously, most of it stayed, and my novel, for the first time, felt like something to be proud of.

These days, this is how I write fiction. Often what I think will be three or four stories turn out to be one. My thrill is that of the synthesizer, to juxtapose as much as I can and ride that edge where harmony meets cacophony. My fear used to be that ideas were finite, that I had to save or hoard them for a lifetime of fiction. But my folders of news clippings, the thousands of photographs on my phone, my lists upon lists of “scraps” and notes, index cards (and more news clippings) left in books—at some point while writing Some Hell I learned what every fiction writer, I think, has to learn: ideas are inexhaustible, and their restraint will only hurt your writing. Instead of rationing my inspiration, I now relish in its wealth. I don’t believe it coincidental that the etymological fossil at inspiration’s heart is the Latin spirare, to breathe; and I don’t think any of us would get very far if we held our breath.


The first story mentioned, “Door-Busting Raids Leave Trail of Blood,” was written by Kevin Sack. The second, “Below Luminous Ice, a Bounty of Mussels,” was written by Craig S. Smith. Both were published in the March 19, 2017 edition of the New York Times.

Vladimir Nabokov’s “On a Book Entitled Lolita” was initially published in 1956 as the Afterword of the first U.S. edition of Lolita.

Beckett quoted in “Beckett at 75 - An Appraisal,” New York Times, April 19, 1981

Patrick Nathan's first novel, Some Hell, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in February 2018. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, the Los Angeles Review of BooksdislocateWords in Light, and elsewhere. His course on reading as writers, "Beyond Craft," starts at the Loft this summer. He lives in Minneapolis.

Patrick will be sharing his path from inspiration to publication, along with Stephanie Wilbur Ash and Loretta Ellsworth, at the Loft's Writing the Novel & Crafting a Career Conference on April 29.