Monday, March 15, 2010

The seeds of our projects

Novelist Elise Blackwell visited my university last week and told some interesting stories about how she found her way to the novels she eventually wrote. What she said reminded me of how serendipitous--or simply unexpected--our writing lives can be. Yes, we work and work and work, trying to realize our various projects, trying to get them under control, to make them more polished or perhaps less. Then when we're done with them we try to find the best possible outlet through which to show them to the world. It's all on us, it seems.

But one can't ignore the power of the unexpected, the circumstantial, and how profoundly that can affect what we do and how it turns out. After finishing her MFA at Cal-Irvine, Blackwell was living in California with her husband, trying to make ends meet through a series of jobs and also trying to keep writing. In part simply to economize, the couple decided to grow their own produce. What started as a private, low level initiative became more successful, and they started growing produce for profit. Around this time, and as part of their business efforts, Blackwell joined the Seed Savers Exchange. It was through her participation in this organization that she heard a fascinating story about Russian scientists who worked at a botanical institute during World War Two. During the seige of Leningrad, as they--like most people in that city--found themselves starving, the scientists refused to eat any of the seeds or rare plants in their possession. They died in order to save the exotic plants and seeds they had worked so hard to collect. Blackwell did not speak Russian nor did she have any particular knowledge of or interest in Russian history. At the time she had never considered writing a historical novel. Yet she knew she needed to tell the story of these scientists. What followed was years of research and writing which resulted in her short novel Hunger, a project her agent thought she was "f****** crazy" to take up but which he eventually championed and which became her first published book. She has since gone on to publish two more novels--Grub and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish (another historical fiction)--with her fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, set to appear within the next few weeks.

Obviously, Blackwell did the work to make Hunger the fine novel it is. Yet it's curious to consider what would have happened if she'd never joined the Seed Savers Exchange and never heard about those Russian scientists. Me too. What if I'd never been selected to teach in the UCA-Netherlands program for the summer of 2001 and thus hadn't visited Amsterdam and not stepped through the doors of that city's Van Gogh museum? Easy answer to that one: I would never have started writing Yellow. What would I be writing instead? And what will I write next? No easy answers there. Too much relies on what you can't predict and what you can never expect.


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