“[Writing a book] is about living with characters long enough to hear their voices and let them tell me the story. […] I can’t control life for my grandchildren, so how could I control a story?”
-Isabel Allende in a 2013 interview with Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy
Years ago I heard Robert Sapolsky talk about people, our interest in newness, and the experience of being a beginner. As far as I remember, he said that in general people lose their interest in newness as they get older. Bit by bit we get stuck in more and more ruts, and the idea of doing things differently, of putting away our bike and trying out a unicycle, gets less appealing. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, he said. But he also said: something happens if you’re a beginner. If you set out into anything new, anything that you just don’t know how to do and still spend time practicing, your general interest in newness tends to go up. Spend the next six months trying to pick up the harmonica and maybe you’ll be less of a stick-in-the-mud about other things, too.
Maybe that’s part of what I love in stories. A first chapter always asks me to step through a door I can’t even imagine yet, to go into a room that might have dragons or friends or blankets made of song and bone. In a first chapter I’m a beginner in what’s there. I’ve been wondering about the first chapter in my novel for years. As far as I can tell, it’s hard. Where do I start, how do I help you start, when there isn’t a start yet? Sitting with Sapolsky and Allende tonight amid the beautiful red rocks of Arizona, the challenge in that feels more like a rainstorm to lift up new flowers than a wall to break down. It takes some balance. Some time. For a little while I don’t know where I am. There’s a rush and a whirl, and the disorienting delight of being swept along to another here I hadn’t seen yet.