The other day I was sitting in the waiting room at the dentist's office waiting for my son when the story began to reveal itself. It was a young girl who began to let me know about her presence and I began getting a sense of her. I pulled out my writer's journal and began to take notes. It was mostly a bullet list of characteristics: what her hair and clothes looked like, what was on her iPod (including what it looked like), some of her thoughts and so on and I diligently took notes on what she revealed.
Wednesday morning I had plans to clean my office after the recent cat attack that left it in shambles but, instead, she began telling me her story and I was obliged to record it. Three chapters in, I realized I still didn't know her name, so I posted a question over at the Writers Unboxed page asking if this had ever happened to anyone before. A number of others over there told me that happens to them and pointed to other pieces of literature where the characters are never named.
At the end of the first act, five chapters in, she told me her name.
So yes, I wrote 1/3 of a novel not knowing my main character's name. I knew the name of a couple of kids she hung out with, her teachers and others, but not her name.
There are other oddities in this story so far. For one, I don't know where it's going. I know a couple of things that will present themselves, but I don't know how or why yet. I don't know what happened before the story started to set events into motion.
If I didn't know better, I'd swear I was reading the story, not writing it.
Then I remembered the story J K Rowling told about Sirius Black's death. She said that right after she wrote the scene she was bawling her eyes out and went to tell her husband. Her husband told her to just rewrite the scene and keep him alive when Rowling looked at him and said she couldn't because that's where the story went. I immediately understood but several non-writing friends had the attitude, "That's ridiculous. Of course you can go back and fix it."
No, no you can't.
So I will let her finish revealing her story to me over the coming week and then go back through with a critical outsider's eye to edit it. Maybe she will tell me why she doesn't like her name (I'm assuming that's why she's not telling me much about it). I know she will tell me her back story once she trusts me enough (and yes, I really feel like she's determining if she can trust me or not) and yes I'm keeping my notebook near by for when she starts talking to me again.
It's another one of those perils of being a writer.
I suppose it's not as great a feat as it once was given medical science in all. In fact, it was a year ago that she had her first stroke (literally) on the eve of her 89th birthday. A year and another stroke later, we gathered with a group of women at the skilled nursing facility she's in and had a sing along, cake and ice cream, and just celebrated.
It wasn't a large party but it was a big one in that, had you asked me at this time last year if I thought we'd be having it, I probably would have said, "No." Yet here we were - me with two of my brothers and my big sister - leading a sing along to standards like "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Ain't She Sweet."
Mom's engagement picture
My brother lead on guitar, my Pi guy provided rhythm and at one point we got my older boy in there on uke to join in as well. It truly was just a happy get together celebrating a woman who raised the six of us and used to love to sit down at her keyboard and sing. Growing up, my parents would have these parties at the house that would always end up with her playing and people singing.
My dad couldn't remember the words to any song (why remember when you could just scat bum-diddy-bum-diddy-do to just about anything?) but he loved to hear her play. His face would light up and he would whistle along.
Painting of our parents
by my sister, Paula Villanova
We had a hi-fi in the corner of the living room where my folks would listen to Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and other records. I still remember the Danish modern cabinet it sat in with it's beige fabric covered speakers and gold threads woven in a diamond pattern through out. As a kid, my mom bought me a copy of the Mary Poppins sound track and I loved listening to it.
My folks went to fancy dances at the country club and yacht club (which sound far snootier than they really were). Sometimes my mom would be in the kitchen getting dinner ready and my dad would walk in, whistling, and grab her to give a quick spin and a dip. She would always growl, "Paul I'm trying to get dinner on the table," and he would wander off with a grin on his face. Music and dance - what a happy set of memories to have when I think of my folks.
my folks dancing at my wedding in '88
As we grew, all of us had our own phonographs. Never the close 'n play kind of crap but a real stereo with a record changer and two speakers and everything! We also had transistor radios - and not just the AM ones but ones that picked up those crazy underground FM stations that were starting to emerge.
Hell, 50 years ago she let me try to stay up late to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and let my big brother Phil take me to see my very first movie: A Hard Day's Night. He took me to the Satuit Playhouse, where I was so small, he had to hold his knee against the seat to keep it in the upright position so I could sit on top to see the screen. I remember asking him why all the girls in the theatre kept screaming to which he replied, "I wish I knew...." It was years later before I understood what his answer really was.
My tastes in music were formed in the sounds of those early years of the big bands, rat pack and crooners that my parents loved and the emerging underground radio of my youth. Back when WBCN in Boston introduced me to music as diverse as Jimmy Buffett, Gil Scott Heron and Steeleye Span (sometimes all in a single set). Mom never did get my love of Bruce Springsteen or the Ramones or even where I developed a taste in classical music along the way. Sometimes she would tease me about it, mocking it on the days I was allowed to listen to "my music" in the car, sometimes she would just flip the dial back to her music. When they moved back up from Florida a few years ago, my sons were helping unpack and Pi had on a Flogging Molly shirt. My mom asked what a Flogging Molly was and he replied, "It's where your Irish music meets my Irish music in a happy, drunken place."
All of us for my dad's 88th birthday
"All right then," she said, but I know she likes that he can sing along to things like "Black Velvet Band" and "I'll Tell Me Ma."
Shortly before he died this year, we were listening to the Frank Sinatra channel on XM when my dad lamented how kids like my sons would never hear the great rhythms and melodies of the Big Bands. So I played Reel Big Fish's "Don't Stop Skanking" for him and he smiled and felt like Pi would be OK with that crazy stuff he likes.
But music was always part of our household and continues to be.
My love of music, and my feeble attempts at playing, come from her. So it seemed right and fitting that yesterday there were generations of us there to sing and play and rejoice. I know we won't have her much longer. Medical science has come a long way, but not so far as to grant immortality and eternal youth. But it really was a lovely afternoon and the refrain of "Ain't She Sweet" is stuck in my head. It swings back and forth from my brother's voice to Paul McCartney's to my dad's whistling, but what's important is it's there.