Because I came to fiction by way of poetry, the idea of plot terrified me. I’d never had to worry about the and then thing. I’d never given a thought to narrative tension. How do you create a long line of suspense that carries the reader from the beginning of the book to the end? How do you get that little twist, the turn in the story, that keeps readers flipping pages?
And then, I held in my hands a slim and affecting novel that had very little plot. It consisted of small anecdotes involving a large, unruly, close but cantankerous, New England family. A family in which the children broke rules and tattled, the older children took care of the younger ones, the father drank, and the mother died in a car wreck.
That novel, Monkeys by Susan Minot, made me think, “Heck, I could do that.”
I could write a novel about family. How we connect, disconnect, reconnect.
I could use details from my own life in inventing a work of fiction.
I read Monkeys a second time, then a third. I underlined. I made notes in the margins. This anecdote of Susan Minot’s reminded me of an anecdote about my own family I could tell. Oh, that characteristic of her sister made me think of my sister. Her brother did something very similar to what my brother once did.
It wasn’t long before I was writing my first novel.
After completing two novels, I still don’t know what a plot is, or how to get one. But, at least, I’m no longer paralyzed by the thought of having to find a trajectory for the story I want to tell. I no longer obsess over constructing a narrative – even though there are times I think that, surely, I ought to know how to do that by now.