Back in 2005-2006 I lived on a small island in the North Sea. The island is called Fanø and it’s little more than a sandbank in the ocean, windy and beautiful and full of boatmen’s picturesque houses. One of these houses had been converted for writers’ residencies, and not long into my stay something unfortunate happened: I wrote a fragment of really good prose.
It was nothing more than half a page about a girl helping her father out at a machine that was hatching ducklings. It began:
I especially remember how he hatched the ducklings in a big hatching machine that smelled of warm eggs and feathers. Sometimes he’d hold the eggs up to his ear and shake them to see if there was any life. If there wasn’t he’d let me throw them in among the trees, and the other ones he put back. When the ducklings were about to hatch, a little hole would appear in the egg. Then you could see the duckling pecking away in there. It was always an excitement to see if they’d survive.
There wasn’t much going on in the scene and yet it felt as if I had finally written something essential. All that I needed was . . . well, more text. I found that once I’d written the half-page I was pleased with, every word afterwards appeared, by comparison, to be of a much lower quality. That was the nature of my misfortune. Most writers, I think, know this predicament. I have my own name for it: the curse of starting on too high a note . I circled around the hatching machine fragment for most of my stay on the island, looking for the rest of the story, and then I flew to New York and checked into a little room on Front Street in lower Manhattan.
The transition from a silent and remote island in the North Sea to the craziest and noisiest island in the world was quite an experience. But once I got accustomed to the change in volume—a whisper to a roar—I dived into Manhattan like a seagull into the sea, and then I started working.
I had come to New York to work on a book—a collection of interviews—with another Danish writer. But soon the other Danish writer lost interest, and I was left alone with my notebook. I had no idea what to do with the project. The obvious solution—dropping it—somehow hadn’t occurred to me yet. I was wired into my surroundings, listening to what the city had to say, because the nature of what other people had to say was the entire idea behind the book.
One day on the subway, a strange thing happened. It was a small, hardly visible thing, and yet it changed the course of my writing.
I was sitting on a train and at the other end of the line of seats was what appeared to be a homeless man. His clothes were dirty and outworn. His face was wrinkled, unshaven, and tanned, and he was sleeping. When we are exhausted and stressed out our muscles sometimes twitch and shake when we sleep. It is as if the body is reluctant to let go because it’s so used to holding on. This homeless man was fighting in his sleep. His arms moved in small spasms. The legs, too. He was sleeping, and yet still on the run. Then suddenly another man, sitting opposite, looked at me. While pointing at the homeless man he said, “When you look at him, you can tell that human beings are really just animals.”
I don’t recall if I answered him, but I clearly remember that my eyes drifted to the doors of the train, and that I felt fear. Not fear of the sleeping man. Fear of the man across from me. I have since had him filed in my memory as the man with the horrible comment .
As for the incident itself, I have filed it in my memory as the moment I plugged into the audible , because when I got back to Denmark, I completely aborted the interview book and found myself staring, one day, at the fragment of prose that I had written on the island of Fanø. I looked at it with the usual regret; I would never be able to write the missing text around the fragment without ruining the fragment itself. There they were on the page: the daughter, the father, the hatching machine, and a duckling. And it hit me: The father in this story could be the man with the horrible comment.
Once I’d chanced upon this idea, it took me less than an hour to write the rest of the story. I centered it around the moment when the father tells his daughter that her mother, who is twitching in her sleep, is “really just an animal.”
“The Duckling” became the first finished story in my collection, Karate Chop , a book that contains many lines and fragments stolen from reality. Manhattan taught me how to tune into the audible, into the literature all around me—the amazing material right under my nose, or right in my ear.
These days I can’t sit on a plane without listening to the people behind me. I take notes, and sometimes I transcribe what they are saying, and I do the same thing closer to home. Yesterday, my neighbor was having a barbecue in his garden, and he shouted to his son: “Don’t take the wieners, don’t take the wieners!” And I, sitting in my own garden, put the line directly in my notebook. You never know.
© Dorthe Nors 2016