Why are you calling?

the day before leaving for the Peace Corps in front of dad's house
the day before leaving for the Peace Corps in front of dad's house

I wait until the house is empty because I don’t want anyone to hear what I’m going to say. I sit at the dining room table and open the address book to the letter A. It takes me a few minutes to dial the first number even though I’ve want to finish the book before my dad gets home.

I don’t recognize the first name, but I ask for it when a voice answers the phone. “This is she,” the woman says.

I tell her my name and realize that she is going to think I am crazy. But I can’t stop myself. “Your name is in my mother’s address book.”

There is a pause. I think about hanging up. It is 1989. There is no caller ID. “Yes, I know your mom,” she says. “How is she?”

“Um…” I say. “Well…”

“Is something wrong?”

It is like I’m listening to my own voice come through the phone. “I didn’t know how else to let people know,” I say. “She. She passed away. Last week.”

I repeat this conversation for every name that answers the phone all the way through Z. Sometimes I know the person I talk to. Many times I do not. Each time I think I’m going to hear what I want to hear even though I don’t know what that is.

When I write fiction, I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I don’t have a message. I never think–Such and such issue is really important to me and I want to explore blahty-blah. When I finish a novel, I flip through the pages and wonder, why did I write this? What was the point? What am I looking for from people?

Do you have to be able to answer these questions to write well?

15 thoughts on “Why are you calling?

  1. I’ve had similar questions. Sherri and I have had discussions about theme and finding them in the writing, and I still don’t see them. I don’t see them in other people’s work and I darned sure can’t find ’em in mine, never mind INJECT them.

    If you discover the answer, please let me know what you learn.

  2. The question is: Did anyone say what you wanted to hear that day?

    I think every novel has one or more themes running through it, whether or not the author meant to put it there. It’s a by-product of writing a cohesive book, and writing with a certain “feeling” in mind, and sometimes it’s dictated by the subject matter. I’ve never written with a theme in mind, but I always find them after the fact. The current wip isn’t finished yet, but as I solidify the plot, I see that the theme is “things are never as they seem.” It comes up over and over, and I was completely unconscious of it.

    Do you see a theme in your work AFTER it’s written, Marta?

    1. The answer to that first question is no. But I don’t think anyone could.

      The answer to that second question is also no. I can see the images I use again and again, but what it all means? No idea.

  3. I don’t know. I don’t know the answers. Maybe I can have questions running through my mind when I write, but I think the best kind of writing happens in the subconscious, and we just shape the outcome. I think when we think we know all the answer before we write, the story can come out preachy and dry.

    I like a nice, moist, messy, unknown, subconscious mystery… even to the writer

  4. Most of the time I find theme shows up unannounced and unpredicted. I can’t force a story to shape itself to a theme, and I find most stories suffer for a writer trying that. But I trust that my subconscious or the literary muse is delivering that along with the story. Seems to be enough, just to trust; it always shows up, anyhow!

  5. I like Sherri’s “look for the theme afterwards, if you want” suggestion.

    Theme is like symbolism: if you worry about it in advance, you put all the “real stuff” (plot, character, setting, style, dialogue…) at risk; but I think it’s completely believable that writers might put things into their works, unconsciously, like “meaning,” symbols, theme, and so on.

    To answer the “Why did I write this?” question, outside of “because it all makes a good story,” I think writers are probably doing after-the-fact second-guessing.

    1. Did that sound bad? I didn’t mean it to. I just know what it’s like to have to make those phone calls, to break that news to people, and try to cope with their grief when you can’t even really bear your own.

      I didn’t mean my other comment to sound callous. I’m sorry.

  6. You ask good questions. I read a lot of commentaries saying that writers should be saying something about the age we live in etc. etc. Yet I think if we’re thoughtful people, we might be saying something without actually realizing what we are saying.

    Okay, does that make any sense at all?

    1. I feel that if I set out to “say something important about the world we live in” I lose the story. I’ll write and leave the what-it-means to others.

      You make sense.

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