I 'd made a few false starts with novels in the preceding years, and I'd yet to really hit upon a kind of story, or way of storytelling, that felt right. I had some stored-up ideas with some promise, but no real plan about which one I'd work on. My simple hope was that I'd figure out something and leave Virginia with chapters I could work with through the fall. The only question was whether I could deal with the looming, perhaps impossible question of plot.
One hazy idea was simple, linear, and to be set in the contemporary Midwest. Months before, I had written "person looking for something" on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in my pocket. The paper was now gone, but it wasn't forgotten. At the very least, writing about this "person looking for something" seemed like it could train me out of a bad tendency I could no longer deny was a part of my fledgling novel-writing skill-set: I seemed to believe "plot", in terms of our contemporary literary novel, referred to a labyrinthine sequence of events with little or no connection to the shared reality of human beings. This was my own fault, really, born more of my own anxiety than any opinions I had about other writers or other books. So far, arbitrary craziness was my answer to dealing with several-hundred pages of text I simply didn't know how to write. Unfortunately, the problem with arbitrary craziness—sorry, one of many problems—is that it guarantees no reader will care about what comes next.
Looking back at the few scribbled outlines I made of novel-ideas from that time, and earlier, is like looking at outlines of the small, detailed, and (sadly) postmodern mental breakdowns of a frustrated apprentice. However, for whatever reason, going to Virginia knocked some sense into me. "Person looking for something", it turns out, is more than enough for a whole novel's plot, even in our fractured 2009, and that's basically the backbone of The Cradle. The simple premise wasn't an experiment in scaling back at all, nor an exercise, but instead the heart of a straightforward story, stripped down to make room for the characters to roam with a bit more freedom, motivated by reasons that were relatable, and important, not just audacious or absurd. The book's protagonist, Matt, keeps having to insist to people that things matter, despite how unkempt and arbitrary the world usually appears. I'm not sure how I felt about the subject when I began writing, but by the time Matt was home again, and I was done with the book, I got the feeling he'd been on to something from the start.
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