Novelist at Work

by Frederick Buechner

On Michelangelo’s ceiling, the old man reaches down out of the cloud to touch Adam’s finger and give him life. Here the situation is reversed. I am Adam reaching up to touch an old man’s finger and give life to a cloud. I am writing about an old man who exists only in my mind. I have put him together out of scraps and pieces, most of them forgotten. There’s some of Mark Twain in him, the old Mark they brought back in a wheel chair from Bermuda to die at Stormfield. There’s some of the old man Isak from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries in him who at the end of the film looks across a little inlet and sees a young man and a young woman in Victorian dress—the man in a straw hat fishing, the woman sitting on the grass beside him with a white parasol—and recognizing them as his parents, raises one hand in greeting as across the water one of them raises a hand to him. There’s some of an old German cousin in him who looked like the Kaiser and walked through forests with his cane in the air naming trees. No need to list more of what went into my old man’s making. It is enough to say that it is I who made him and not he himself. I speak not of Michelangelo’s old man in the cloud but of the old man in the novel I am here to try to write. He is my old man, and it is in me that he lives and moves and has such being as he may be said to have.

It is true that he has never run away with the book as novelists are fond of saying their characters do, but he has on occasion lived and moved in ways other than those I had in mind for him. For instance, he weeps from time to time. I had imagined him as crustier and more remote than that. Also, although I intended him to see ghosts, I did not intend the particular ghosts that he saw—Elizabethan ghosts mainly. He saw Shakespeare’s ghost whispering on and on with a faint lisp about forgotten rooms and forgotten faces, and he saw the ghost of Elizabeth herself. “She had the worst set of teeth I ever saw,” my old man said, “as if she’d been eating blueberry pie. Now, the dress and all could have been a figment of my imagination,” he went on. “The dress I could have dreamed, but not the teeth. It would have taken a dentist to dream a set of teeth like that.” It was I obviously who put those words into the old man’s mouth, but I had not planned on his saying them any more than the old man planned on the Queen’s bad teeth. It is the same way, I suppose, as with people you dream about. They have only your dream to move around in and they are your creatures, but they move with a curious freedom. It is my godlike task this morning to start the old man moving again.

With the rain beginning to let up a little, I read back over the work of the last few days, an absurdly small amount for all the hours of my life I spent on it, only three or four pages in a script so nearly unreadable even to myself that I assume that at some level of my being I do not want it read, sentences written and rewritten and then so befuddled with interlineations that I have to copy them out all over again in order to read them and then in the process of copying rewrite them into illegibility again. I read it all over only to discover when I am finished that it is apparently not the words that I have been listening to but the silence in between the words maybe or the silence in this familiar room where I have spoken the name of Christ and signed myself with his cross. I have understood nothing of what I have read so I have to go back and read it all over again.