First drafts and toy blocks

When I was little, people gave boys Erector sets made of metal strips with holes in them.  You could build a drawbridge, or a skyscraper, and if you wanted to make a working machine the company provided pulleys, gears, and motors.  I wasn’t interested.  Erector sets were too fiddly and required patience, ability to follow directions, and willingness to stick to someone else’s plan.

Instead, we – my cousins and siblings and I – used building blocks. Like Legos, they were blocks that came in a big cylindrical box and snapped together, but they were white and didn’t have exactly the same system as Legos.  We also used playing cards, well-worn ones that had survived countless games of hearts, poker, and bridge.  We built with  old-fashioned wooden blocks as well, the ones still sold in toy stores that appeal to the nostalgia not of parents but of grandparents.
The end result with the wooden blocks was often a marble machine.  You put a marble in the top and it followed a long, circuitous path all the way down if you had done everything right, skittering out the bottom and across the floor.  If you moved one block, sometimes the marble came out somewhere else.

We also told stories with the blocks, and built houses for the Steiff toys we used as characters in the stories – we played with bears, hedgehogs, lions, and mice, who spoke in our voices and moved with our hands.

That was what we did inside, and when we were outside we made stories as well.  The game was called “Paths.”  We cleared paths and spots in the maple woods, edged the spots with loose stones or twigs, created entry ways, and set up small towns of our own.  I remember having a leaf store where I offered tulip poplar, ferns, and Scotch pine in return for the common currency of the time, which was maple leaves.  The point wasn’t the materials.  It was the story, and the ability of the materials to convey the story with vivid concreteness, even if the smell of dirt in the woods, the green shadows of the rhododendron where I had my store, or the odor of a crushed tulip poplar leaf had nothing to do with the community market story I was telling.

These days, they market Legos in bookstores, along with pictures of elaborate structures on the box.  You can build a space shuttle, or Buckingham Palace.  Adults like Nathan Sawaya create vast projects out of Legos.  Sawaya’s faceless bodies, built up of small square primary-colored blocks, grasp their own chests and rip them open in a gesture like a prayer or a plea, and looking at them, you are moved by the primal force of the form.  Yet at the same time, you’re aware that it is a geometrical construction that looks as if it was made with graph paper and colored pencils or eight-bit graphics.  It’s both rigid and clunky, like Chuck Close’s portraits up close.

When I’m writing a novel, I feel as if I’m still a kid, still building houses for characters with plastic building blocks, or building marble machines that have not marbles but people in them.  I’m still the same kid who couldn’t deal with the elaborate instructions of Erector sets.  I would love to say that I start with a strongly sketched set of characters and a carefully outlined plot in place, but I don’t.  I start with imaginary stuffed animals and imaginary blocks.

I usually start with an opening scene that sticks, and ask, “Then what?”  My first novel came from a scene in a dream where a young woman was sweeping a courtyard in a school, ignored by everyone around her.  I wondered what she was doing there, and  as I found out, I put the blocks in place for her to step on as she entered the next scene.  She moved through a story, and as she did I built settings around her and watched how she reacted.  She did some very odd things, and I discovered her voice and her character as I moved her around and spoke in her voice.  The second novel began with a very awkward sword fight, and I had to figure out why it was so rage-filled and angry.  In the third, someone put a large egg on the main character’s kitchen table.  When the egg cracked open, there was a young monster inside, needing to be cared for.  And so on.

But as I put the book together, as I tell the story, it’s still made of building blocks, all right angles, primary colors, and smooth surfaces.  When it’s all done in first draft, what I have is not yet a proper story with a coherent theme and a voice.  It’s a pile.  If I stand back from it far enough, I marvel that it sort of hangs together and even conveys some kind of intention.  And then I get in close, and it’s smooth pine blocks with rounded edges, or plastic snap-on bricks in red, yellow and white.  Hopefully, it’s not playing cards, because that’s when I have to pick up the book and put it to one side to sit for a while.

Which is to say that because I have time now, I have been keeping the faith this past week, working for a couple of hours every day, and with that simple effort I am suddenly almost finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for the past two or three years.  I say I’ve been working a couple of hours, but when I don’t have to think about the summer reading blog, or worry about how to rewrite my curriculum, or deal with teaching two new books, I find myself waking up, walking through my day, and lying down with thoughts about the next brick and where it should go.

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