In the first half of Helen Humphreys’ novel Machine Without Horses, the narrator (who very much resembles Humphreys herself) is preparing to write a novel. She is inspired by Megan Boyd’s obituary, which also caught the eye of Maira Kalman (a devotee of obituaries) in The Principles of Uncertainty.
The first part of the novel has a lot to say about writing: about doing research, about approaching the story, about deciding what and who to write about and how. I found it so absorbing that when the second part began — the story which the narrator was working to tell all this time — I wasn’t ready for the first part to end.
“The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader.”
The narrator is in mourning for a series of deaths in her life. She reflects on how being a novelist has affected her life and has given her a way to deal with her losses:
“I have been writing for so long now that I can no longer separate myself from the act of writing. I don’t know where one begins and another ends. There was a time when it bothered me that I had become what I did, that I tended to look at everything in terms of story or image, that while I was experiencing my life, I was also apart from it. But I have made peace with that now because what I know about writing is that it will take everything I can throw at it, and that is a comfort. I can fall into it and it will absorb my sorrow, my ideas, my restlessness. It has become a process for making me whole again whenever the world breaks me down.”
As she learns how to make salmon flies herself, as she lives her quiet life in the wake of loss, she works carefully through what it means to write a novel:
“There are three main questions to consider when beginning a novel: What is the story, whose story is it, and how are you going to tell that story? Of these questions, the third one is the most interesting and deserves the greatest amount of thought.
Most stories have, quite frankly, been told before. Most themes have been touched upon. So, it matters how you choose to tell a story. And it pays to spend a long time trying to figure out what the optimum way to do this is going to be. Often, the first thing that occurs to a writer is just the most overused trope. Turning approaches over, spending days, weeks, months, considering all the elements of your story and how they will best be served, will yield up more interesting options for the narrative.”
Considering these questions brings up a new question, a more serious one:
“There is another question to ask yourself when you set about writing a novel, perhaps the most important question of all: Why? Why do it? The world does not really care that you tell this particular story. There are always plenty of other stories that can be told, ones that are more interesting, more politically or socially relevant. Stories that address the moment of time that we stand on and therefore have greater imperative.
It is hard to write a novel, to make something out of nothing. And it gets increasingly harder, not easier, the longer I do it. I find more challenges with writing now than I faced when I was younger.”
But the challenges are overcome. The first part of the novel ends with her declaration that she is ready to write the story:
“Whatever is preoccupying me at the moment needs to be synthesized into fuel for the narrative, but it has no place in the actual narrative. This is the sleight of hand that comes with writing a novel. It is all about making yourself disappear.”
And then she does disappear. The novel begins (though in fact it’s barely a novella), and every trace of the narrator is gone, except what seeps through in the character she has created of Megan Boyd. But the novel is not stronger for the narrator’s absence.