Filling the Well: Elizabeth Graver on the early stages of the writing process

Elizabeth Graver portrait

Elizabeth Graver has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston College since 1993. She is the author of the National Book Award-nominated The End of the Point (2013),  as well as the novels Awake (2005), The Honey Thief (2000), and The Unraveling (1999) and the short story collection Have You Seen Me? (1991). 

I am currently in the early stages of a new project that finds its inspiration in the Sephardic Jewish history of my family on my mother’s side.  As is typical for me at this stage, the project’s shape (linked stories? novel? non-fiction?) is still well beyond my grasp. So, too, are the defining features of its central characters and even its time frame (1492-2014?  1910-1960?  1957?).  I love this phase, when everything is possibility and play. I research, mull, gather, interview, dream, discard, gather more, explore.

Two months ago, I traveled with my mother to Barcelona, where we met her first cousin, Silvia, and visited my great-grandfather’s grave and the site of the hidden synagogue where he was caretaker. A few months earlier, we made a pilgrimage to the house in Queens where my mother grew up and the street corner on Linden Boulevard — now home to a Haitian church — where my grandfather had his ice cream store.  I went, this past year, to Chicago, where I interviewed my Uncle David, and to Fort Lauderdale, where I interviewed my Uncle Al.

All this venturing out is central to my process (not to mention fun). I’m not looking for facts so much as for pulses, points of energy, the beginnings of stories that make me want to know — or imagine — more.  Equally central to my process, though, is the venturing in:  inside my own mind, of course, but also inside the nourishing, instructive, inspiring worlds of other people’s books.

When I was writing The End of the Point — a novel about a family that returns for over half a century to one small spit of land on Buzzards Bay — I turned to books where geographic place — singular, intense, returned to, beloved, often under siege — figures almost as a central character.  I read Wendell Berry, John Hanson Mitchell, Terry Tempest Williams, John Berger, Jane Brox.  I read To the Lighthouse, Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, The Good House by Ann Leary, The Big House by George Howe Colt, Emerson, Thoreau.

This new project is also about place and family, but my lens has changed, and now I’m interested in place as plural, multiple, in stories of diaspora — place flung wide, seeds spread.  My reading this year has been full of stories of crossings and migrations by Edwidge Danticat, Maxim Shrayer, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Colum McCann, Dinaw Mengestu, Eva Hoffmann, André Aciman . . . .

This morning, I turned to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family, about growing up in a Dutch-Ceylonese family in Sri Lanka.   I’d read it before, years ago, but in my current state of mind, it felt like a new book with new things to teach me, and I devoured it.  Its crossings are temporal, geographic and cultural but also formal, as it moves between poetry, prose, and photographs.  It is funny and strange, opaque at times, full of epigraphs and other people’s voices.  Confident in its own peculiar shape. Urgent in its devotion to its own complex and often hard-to-pin-down story.  Here is one (out of many) gorgeous, fiercely particular little chunk:

I still believe  the most beautiful alphabet was created by the Sinhalese.  The inset of ink curves into a shape that is almost sickle, spoon, eyelid.  The letters are washed blue glass which betray no jaggedness.  Sanskrit was governed by verticals, but its sharp grid features were not possible in Ceylon. Here the Ola leaves which people wrote on were too brittle. A straight line would cut apart the leaf and so a curling alphabet was derived from its Indian cousin.  Moon coconut.  The bones of a lover’s spine.

And so I fill my well.  It will be months, I suspect, before I really start to write.



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