The name of this column is taken from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The entire passage is as follows: “My dear, dear girl [. . .] we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire—a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron—which we cannot get back.”
So what is this column about? It is about everything which we cannot get back, which is everything we are and were and hope to be. As a writer and publisher, that naturally covers a wide and varied terrain filled with random musings, philosophical rants, academic punditry, writerly insights, reflections on the nature of society, the nature of life, great books, children, family, love, sex, death, God—all of it. Last week I shared with you some of my thoughts about what a writer should focus on if he or she hopes to write great literature. This week I wanted to say a few things about finding the proper entry point into a story.
It is not about the elements (characters we love, atmosphere, setting, plot); different ‘great’ stories possess a varied range of these elements. So I agree with the thoughts of Susan Reilly: it starts with the writer. But I also think it is more than the writer simply being open and honest about the human condition. It is about unlocking secrets that wish to remain hidden.
When a novelist sits down to write a story, the first task is to find the proper entry point into that story. This is not as easy as one might suspect; if the novelist enters the story at the wrong point, the story will not succeed. How do you know if you’ve found the right entry point? Once you do, the story flows from your pen (or typewriter or keyboard). But in truth this is only the beginning of exploring the narrative because the process repeats itself for every chapter, for every section or sequence. Finding the proper entry point is kind of like learning how to write all over again, but once a novelist accepts this as an absolutely necessary part of the process of creation, that novelist will be able to unlock most (never all) of the secrets contained within the germ of the story.
The same is true of course for poets, composers, painters, artists of every kind.
The same is also true for a finished work of art with respect to the relationship between that work of art and the world. A work of art (novel, symphony, painting, poem) must find its proper entry point into the world if it is to become a part of the consciousness of the world.
The proper entry point for a work of art can be anything: the artist’s biography, geography, ethnicity; it can be the topical nature of the work of art; it can be an accidental convergence of exterior events; it can be an internally focused marketing effort.
Once a work of art has found a proper entry point into the world, it begins to spread out its roots and take hold in the consciousness of the world. A proper entry point is like deep fertile ground.
An entry point that is less than proper is like shallow, stony ground. Most works of art do not find a proper entry point into the world, which is why they disappear almost as soon as they appear.
Periodically, a work of art that once had deep roots and was seemingly everywhere in the consciousness of the world has to be replanted. When this occurs, the work of art has to once again find a proper entry point back into the world.
This is why over time nothing much remains.
Peter Damian Bellis is the author of One Last Dance & Other Stories (1996), which was a 1997 Minnesota Book Award Finalist, and The Conjure Man (2010), which made the informal long list for The National Book Award in 2010. He is also the publisher of River Boat Books.