A Novel Idea

Over lunch yesterday, Michelle let on that she’s writing a novel – her ninth. She’s a long-time participant in National Novel-Writing Month (which happens to be November); in fact, she’s responsible for harassing and shaming dozens of other Chicago residents into keeping to their 1000-word-a-day quotas.

She’s got a compelling pitch for them: “Hey, if I can write a novel while working 60-hour weeks at the South Pole, you slackers should have nothing to complain about.” I’d find it hard to argue, except that I just don’t think I have what it takes – I can write for hours on end, describing what I see around me, but I can’t invent a plot to save my life. Really. I mean, I’m in the perfect venue for coming up with stories – exciting location, fascinating characters, and I just can’t come up with a story.

I guess the problem is that I’m not good at writing about people, and stories are generally all about people. As I said, there are fascinating people here – heroic, brilliant people. Kind people. Boring people. At least one who might be genuinely insane. Folks with secret pasts. The Alaska boy looking to make good in the eyes of his family. The runaway bride. Every one of these people has an amazing story to tell. I couldn’t make up stories as good as any of these, and I can’t bring myself to tell any of theirs. I don’t know why – I’ve tried, and I just can’t figure out how to do it. Honestly, my desktop is littered with attempts.

So I go ahead and just tell my story, with little cameos over lunch from folks like Michelle. And Russ, the quiet young carpenter who came down with us all from Denver (speaking of kind folks). He listens in on our conversation and smiles affably as if he’s found himself sitting in on the conversation of madmen. He’s about as easygoing as they come – quick with a smile, and comfortable with silence.

Russ doesn’t give the impression of working hard to choose his words, but when he does speak, it’s always with a purpose. He’ll laugh at himself while telling how he took he slipped and froze his hand to a pipe the other day. “Yeah, I’d taken my glove off so I could pick up the screws.” Somewhere in the back of your mind, you realize he’s telling you: “Be careful. Don’t make that same mistake.”

Anyhow – that level of detail I’m good at describing. But if I wanted to dig down and really tell his story? Or Aaron’s or Rolf’s? I don’t think I could do that. And I couldn’t make one up, either, if I were trying to write them into a story. (Michelle confesses that the new novel already has a David Cohn, but assures everyone that it’s not actually me.) I guess I’m too impressionistic – I can capture the feeling in a moment, but not carry a story from that moment on to the next, and the next after that.

Which is a shame, because, as I said, I’ve got the perfect venue for a story. Even better than just the South Pole. It’s a place that’s only spoken about in whispers down here, a place I never imagined would exist, and – in a couple of months – will cease to exist. It’s a place full of stories and ghosts. It’s just called “Old Pole”.

Have I written about Old Pole before? It was the original South Pole base, built under the ice half a century ago. There are blueprints, and there are stories, but it is so insanely off-limits that I understand you can get sent home for even trying to go out there. The prohibition is there for good reason – it’s slowly getting crushed by the ice accumulating above it, and even going near it risks all sorts of painful death from collapse, accompanied by insurmountable volumes of paperwork (last year a tractor crossed over what may have been an undocumented section of the buried station and fell right through). To mitigate the risk, USAP is sending a team of demolition experts down later this summer to drill, plant explosives, and cave the whole thing in once and for all.

To be clear: I have no desire – whatsoever – to go to Old Pole and explore its sunken hallways. But I want to write a story about people who do. I just can’t figure out how. Ah well, maybe once it’s gone, the words will come. For now, I’ll just have to make do with impressions.

3 responses to “A Novel Idea

  1. I will follow and read every word you write, tensely searching for glimpses of what is real and actual at the south pole, but have only a passing interest in fiction written by people who happen to be stationed there.The real and actual and now of a place so extreme is far more compelling and gripping to me than an imagined drama. Keep it up!

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  2. Don't worry – every word I write here will be factual reporting. At least, as factual as I can make it. The fiction will show up later, in another forum. The facts here are stranger than I could possibly invent!

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  3. Pingback: New (old!) story: Abraham and Sarah | David Pablo Cohn·

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