By Mark Alpert
It’s Black Friday as I write this, and my daughter and I are protesting the annual capitalistic orgy by refusing to buy anything. Instead, we’re writing. She’s working on a paper about King Lear. I’m going to write about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating process of finding new ideas for novels.
At this moment (4:23 p.m.) my daughter and I are doing our creative work at a salad place called Sweetgreen, mostly because we wanted to get out of the apartment for a while. Sweetgreen is a restaurant/takeout chain that’s spreading across Manhattan like a weed; it features salads with cute names like the Kale Caesar, which sells for the very uncute price of $13. Since this place opened a year ago across the street from our apartment building, I’ve dropped at least a thousand dollars on their artisanal greenery, so I’ve definitely earned the right to come here on Black Friday with my daughter and commandeer one of their tables for creative writing and not spend a dime. Because we’re protesting. We hate mindless consumerism. And yet we’ll continue to buy their overpriced salads on the other 364 days of the year.
Sweetgreen is actually a pretty good spot for writing, much better than any of the fancy coffee shops that have opened nearby (Joe Coffee, Joe & The Juice, Blue Bottle, etc.) It’s much less crowded at this place, and there’s plenty of room on the table for our laptops. The Sweetgreen chain has an organic, healthy-living philosophy that’s probably more strategic than sincere. It’s expressed with odd business practices such as refusing to stock sugar or any other sweeteners alongside the dispensers of Jasmine Green Iced Tea, Lemon Fresca, and Kale Gingerade. (Because sweeteners are bad for you! We’re not going to let you give yourself diabetes!) But more pertinent to my writing topic today is the inspirational message printed on Sweetgreen’s recycled-paper napkins: “Some of the best ideas have come from the back of a napkin. Ready to share yours?”
None of my ideas for novels has come from a napkin. I’ve written 14 books so far (nine of which have been published) and the process is still mysterious to me. I can’t remember how most of my plots and characters were born; their origins are clouded by a sort of primordial mist, and all I can do is make guesses about what I was thinking at the time. This is because the process of writing a novel is so immersive and overwhelming. Writing Chapter Two obliterates the memory of writing Chapter One, and so on. The process of parenting is much the same; the time-consuming task of raising a toddler mostly swamps the memories of feeding and diapering the same kid as an infant. When I look across the table at the brilliant 17-year-old writing about King Lear, it’s very difficult to recall the eight-year-old who lived for SpongeBob or the three-year-old who loved to dress up like a butterfly. I rely on photos and videos to remind me what she was really like back then.
But I have no photos or videos to illuminate why I started writing my books. My forthcoming novel, THE COMING STORM — scheduled to be published by St. Martin’s Press in January — was inspired by politics; I started writing it soon after Trump was elected, and all the outrageous events over the following year spurred me on. I made some obvious choices — one of the book’s characters is an unnamed U.S. president who looks and sounds very familiar, and the novel’s hero comes from an immigrant family — but I don’t remember how I composed the plot or selected the other characters. While waiting for that book to be published, I wrote a Young Adult novel that I’m still revising, and in the meantime I’ve started tossing around ideas for yet another book.
Like most novelists, I have certain obsessions I keep writing about. Mine are death, God, and the apocalypse, not necessarily in that order. For me, the key to success is finding an idea that taps into those obsessions, allowing me to work up the passion I need to write the book. But that’s easier said than done. Right now I’m at a loss. I’m still looking for an idea that grabs me.
When I was writing poetry in grad school, one of my teachers told us that writing a good poem was like getting struck by lightning. The great poets were the people who were willing to stand below a thunderstorm all their lives. I used to spend hours in Columbia University’s library, reading Berryman and Bishop and Roethke and Stevens, keeping my notebook open on the table in front of me just in case the lightning should strike. And these days I still follow that strategy. I read voraciously, devouring novels of every genre. This week I’m reading The Adventures of Augie March and trying for the umpteenth time to understand why Saul Bellow is so celebrated. I’m also plowing through the recently released third season of the television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle.
And my daughter is an inspiration too. In the two-and-a-half hours since I sat down at this table in Sweetgreen I’ve written about 900 words, but she’s written more than 1,800. I need to catch up!
By the way, an hour ago we broke our anti-capitalist promise and purchased a couple of Jasmine Green Iced Teas (for $3 each!) To circumvent Sweetgreen’s anti-sweetener policy, I ran back upstairs to our apartment, poured some sugar into a plastic baggie, and smuggled it into the place so we could sweeten our drinks. But I poured way too much sugar into the baggie, and now the bulging thing is sitting on the table next to our laptops, making us look like a couple of coke dealers.
Which explains the picture of our workspace, shown at the top of this post!