Ralph Ellison wrote the first page of Invisible Man while staying at a friend’s farm in Waitsfield, Vermont. He had been to the farm before, and upon his first visit the beauty and prolific wildlife stunned him. Arnold Rampersad, in his National Book Award-nominated biography Ralph Ellison, writes: “After the dinginess of New York, he found Vermont and New England in the spring beautiful beyond belief. The nights were cold and the mountains and the secluded gorges were still white with snow. Spring had come late that year, but now the brooks and streams rushed and burbled with clear, clean water. Lilacs and apple blossoms flowered, robins and swallows flitted and twittered, and chickadees sounded their shrill call, rabbits and squirrels ran freely.”
I live in Burlington, Vermont, and I can attest to the density of trees and flowers and fruit and small things creeping and running around everywhere in this state. The leaves alone are a beautiful scourge, for though they spray glorious red and orange and pink-white and electric yellow across the Green Mountains, when they fall they must be reckoned with—a neighbor of mine tells me she filled sixty lawn waste bags in one raking last year. This morning I saw, yet again, a humongous skunk scamper across a front yard a few houses down from me, and I live in the city. Granted, it is a city of only 40,000 (the largest in Vermont), where my neighbors raise chickens, or ducks, where you can walk or bike just about anywhere you need to go, but it is urban. And as I dive back into my dissertation project with the aim of turning it into a book and seek the solitude Ellison found in his makeshift writing studio in a barn on his friends’ farm, I notice that my writing “studio” resonates with another scene from Ellison’s life, albeit from the fictional world he created.
Most evenings, after I have read Corduroy, or Blue Hat, Green Hat, or Nana in the City, or a Beatrix Potter story to my daughter and laid her in bed, I head down to the basement and my small mountain range of index cards, arranged on a makeshift tabletop built out of a door and a few 2x4s. In the basement I find solitude and insulation from the noise above and outside. Above my head are a few blaring, bare light bulbs, and lately I can’t help but think of those strange opening pages of Ellison’s celebrated novel: “In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type.” As a writing technology, the index card slows things down the way a typewriter would if I were to use it; they are physical, mobile, limiting in their smallness, and I am sort of in love with them. When I go to the basement I do feel as if I am going back in time a bit, the time before Word and Scrivener and OneNote, that era when Joseph Heller and William Faulkner covered walls with their outlines, when every word was on some kind of paper.
I never bring my computer with me to the basement, and the discipline of the method is to force myself to work out the ideas, the arrangement of the argument or story before I start building paragraphs and sentences. It worked for my dissertation, and I hope it will work now as I craft that material into something that a more general audience will (hopefully) want to buy and read. The drafting process is one best compared to articulation—by which I mean an arcane definition of articulation, explained so vividly in Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City, wherein you strip a cadaver of flesh and arrange the bones into a recognizable skeleton. If I write paragraphs while drafting or brainstorming ideas, I then lift out what is real in them, what has evidence behind it, what coheres—the bones—and hand-write it on an index card. If it sounds tedious, dry, slow, that is because it is, and its effect on me is much like what I imagine the air and capacious rhythm of the Vermont countryside effected in Ellison—it is calming, centering, almost noise-canceling.
The practice of limiting each index card to one idea (the way I was taught in high school) also provides a more or less satisfying solution to the perennial problem of trying to write without simultaneously editing and thus interrupting one’s creative flow. What people call writer’s block, which is not a real thing, is often some permutation of this dilemma, where the writing voice fights with the editing voice to the point of perceived paralysis. Other times it is simply perfectionism masquerading as powerlessness, in which case the problem is perfectionism, not the mythical impediment of “writer’s block.” I manage my own perfectionist tendencies through the flexibility of the index card: If I write an idea on an index card that I can’t use in a given iteration of a chapter, I don’t cut it or throw it away, I simply add it to the stack of cards bearing ideas that I can’t use for now, ideas that might come back later, ideas that are set aside, not gone. Thus, I avoid the small states of fearful mourning that sometimes accompany the editing process, and can accumulate into an art-choking condition where I can’t cut something because I am afraid it might later be vital to me. Such fear constitutes our psyche’s attempt to preempt melancholia; of course, it backfires and creates melancholic attachment to passages that haven’t even been cut yet. Such frightful affects often operate unconsciously; they are entirely irrational, and superbly real.
I haven’t counted my index cards, but I know that there are far more than 1,369. Like the light bulbs of Ellison’s unnamed protagonist they quietly illuminate what I create, revealing the cracks, the corners, the dust, the fog. I look forward to the day I have a place in the countryside to do my scribbling and stacking, where I can combine the two solitudes of barn and index cards into something someone else will want to read, in solitude, then talk about in the noisy world.