At the aquarium in the London Zoo I watched cavefish swim and route the dark. Sheer bodies pinked by the circulation of blood, the watery pink of well flossed gums. They were eyeless. Had no eyes at all and appeared spectral. Without socket or orbit, their faces were silvered flat. They navigated, I read, by vibration, translating movement into direction. Eddies. Shifting water. A stress fracture in the current. I was wearing a new leather jacket and drinking coffee. I wrote on the side of my cup “the lateral line” in blue ink, half-cursive.
There are notes to myself written on playbills and paper cocktail napkins, notes used as page markers and left inside books. On the back of a receipt I wrote, “Trivial brouhaha. A man with a red tan makes his girlfriends make breakfast. Gnats seem leashed to the ceiling.” This is the start of my process: the collection of appreciable fragments. I might find a character in these notes, a title, or a single line to carry around on all days. And then I overcook rice. I skin my knees. I call the automated bank line to hear my checking account balance. I forget the names of Greenpoint streets, but go on trusting that a story will take its course.
Much of writing is peskily conscious; it is seated plunking and the cutting of lines. But it is also a sense, electricity, guts, an instinctive orientation in abyssal hearts. I’m fascinated by the reflexive part of the writing process. What is the stimulus? Is it cornered energy? A surplus of observations? A friend once told me that unbidden knowledge was pattern recognition—not Muse, not mystery, not art.
Indeed, I collect similarities. I’m thinking of all the photographs taken at dusk and the people I’ve loved with bad teeth. Yet I feel awed by variance, overawed by quirks and inconsistencies and caprice. I am on the loose, with everyone, in a world little known. Most of my work fails to do more than wander; sometimes it finds its course. The loveliest part of the writing process is the pathway felt out blindly. It’s the words and purpose brought to me through my body, abruptly sensed by the lateral line.
I look at a companion and think, “His hair is the blackest of dogs.” I think of dark waves and the voice of a lounge singer at a Bermuda bar. The singer whispered, “If your face wants to smile, let it.” I attempt to unscramble experience or phrase what has clashed together. But my writing process isn’t just the winking cursor. Nor the time I spend drinking seltzer water and listening to the rumble of my fan. It’s also live-wire living—getting messy, being honest, encountering turbidity or cruelness, aspiring to grace, accepting the secretive and strangely grand.
Though I am awfully sentimental, I don’t wish to preserve experience. I want to repurpose, not record. The knowing in the guts is the sudden connection between the unrelated. This is what I pursue in fiction. It is exhilarating to find myself leagues from where I began. What is personal in my work is barely recognizable. I know that it started with what I noticed and loved: chunks of pyrite, a tilting voice in song, cheap jewelry, black-marker bathroom graffiti, the wild hoodoo of names, the throats of cats, or a barroom ceiling strung with baseball caps. My process is mostly scrappiness. It’s scrappy to knuckle through each play of words, to want the unfathomable here.