In the early 1990s, one of my students was working on a historical novel that moved back and forth between San Francisco and China around the turn of the 20th century. The author was then in her 70s, and so was determined to finish the book as soon as she could.
|"Imagine an entire book changing because a character did or didn’t wear underpants."|
Let’s call her Edith. When she began my class, Edith already had exhaustive character sketches, a lengthy chapter-by-chapter outline, and about 100 pages written.
The material was promising, and I encouraged her to finish writing a draft rather than get bogged down in rewriting what wasn’t yet complete. It turned out I’d gotten far ahead of her problem: Edith wasn’t bogged down in rewriting. She was bogged down in the Chinese Underpants Conundrum.
It boils down to this: Edith couldn’t finish a pivotal scene until she learned if women in late 19th century China wore underpants beneath their clothes. This was important, she said, because one character was going to end up upside down, and if she weren’t wearing underpants, what happened next could change dramatically.
It was an intriguing question. Imagine: an entire book changing because a character did or didn’t wear underpants. I got caught up in it. I saw the plot trajectory going this way or that way. I began to write the book in my own head, always one of the dangers of teaching writing.
“Well?” Edith asked. She was still standing there, and I was pulled back into my role as writing teacher.
“Leave it blank,” I told her. “You’ve got your story outline. Go back to it when you’re finished.”
She stammered the usual buts.
“Which way do you want your novel to go?” I asked her.
“This way,” Edith said, with authority. “But if she’s not wearing underpants, it can’t go that way. You see? It changes everything.”
I could see. I was off again, imagining the new possibilities.
Edith brought me back to the classroom. “So where can I find the answer?” she asked.
In those long-ago days before Google and Ask Jeeves, I suggested a college librarian who’d been helpful to me. He in turn would lead Edith to a number of excellent sources. Nevertheless, when the class met the following week, Edith’s question remained unanswered and her novel stalled.
I’ve encountered the Chinese Underpants Conundrum both in my own work and in students’. My first suggestion remains the same: Leave it blank. That’s what I do. I come back to do the research later. This is a novel, after all, not a footnoted historical tract. Of course I’ve done a lot of eclectic reading before I begin writing a book, but those niggling details always pop up. If I let them slow me down, I’d never finish writing.
But there’s another answer for my Chinese underpants student, too, one that was less apparent to me because I don’t outline but rather write to find out what happens next. Edith already had her outline. She already knew where her story was going. So her problem was twofold. (Is that what Chinese underpants would look like? I wondered. Twofold? But I digress.) First, she needed to know the answer for historical veracity. But second, the rest of her novel hinged on this tiny detail.
Or did it?
It turns out my unique way of solving problems in the real world has an application here as well. Edith was looking at her problem one-dimensionally: If my character isn’t wearing underpants, the rest of the story will change. But what if her character didn’t fall the same way? What if, in other words, the Chinese Underpants Conundrum never happened?
When I offered this (to me) foolproof solution, however, Edith insisted that she had to know the answer. Aha! I thought. The Chinese Underpants Conundrum had nothing to do with Edith’s novel. Edith just wanted to know if those gals wore panties. I told her this. She objected. And this led to the next problem, because Edith was then in her 70s and I in my 40s, so of course, she’d lived longer and knew better than I.
Then why was she taking my class?
Edith’s eyes narrowed. “You’re supposed to know these things,” she said.
“Whether women in 19th century China wore underpants?”
“Edith,” I said. “I’m a writer. That means I’m a dilettante. I collect details the way others collect salt-and-pepper sets and hubcaps. (Hubcaps? Well, I could edit that later.) I see more of the world than most people do. I don’t filter out details. So when I sit down to write, what I need is usually there. When it’s not…”
“Like whether 19th century Chinese women wore underpants,” Edith interrupted.
“Like whether Chinese women wear underpants,” I agreed, “I don’t let it slow me down. I leave it blank and fill it in later.”
“But I want to know now.” Edith’s whine was not unlike my then-teenaged daughter’s.
“I know you do. But Edith. Listen. It doesn’t matter. You already know what’s going to happen next. The underpants are disguising something else you don’t want to see.”
Edith blushed. I heard my own metaphor only after I’d said it.
I laughed. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Now she bristled. “What’s it?”
“Writing about sex.”
She set her shoulders back, just so. “It’s not necessary.”
“Sex isn’t necessary?”
Now she harrumphed. “Putting sex in books.”
“Which is why she has to be wearing underpants,” I said.
“But what if— ?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I told her. “This woman will be wearing underpants. Maybe her western lover bought them for her. How would that be? Or her daughter sent them from San Francisco. That would work. Or— ”
“It’s my book,” Edith reminded me.
I agreed that it was. I looked at Edith, waited.
“So maybe she saw them in a store,” she said slowly. “That time she followed her lover to where he lived with his wife.”
I nodded, encouraging her to go on.
“She goes into the store,” Edith went on. “The clerk tries to chase her out. Chinese women aren’t allowed in this store. Or are they?” She stopped. “I need to find that out,” she said. “I can’t go on until I do.”
Uh-oh. “Leave it blank,” I suggested. But Edith wasn’t a leave it blank kind of writer. And all these years later, I wonder if she ever finished her novel. No. I wonder if she ever finished that scene.
Read an excerpt from Lisa Lenard-Cook's Dissonance.
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003), which won the Jim Sagel Prize for the Novel in manuscript, has gone on (despite the copy editor’s review) to be short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award. In addition, it is a selection of NPR Performance Today’s Summer Reading Series and was the 2004 countywide reading choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. Her second novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), was, like, Dissonance, a Southwest Book of the Year. Her website is www.lisalenardcook.com