As I walked Sophie this morning in the neighborhood, a raven flew over us. Caw! It greeted. Some people find signs everywhere. Am I, for instance, to deduce that our encounter with the raven means that the Baltimore Ravens will beat the New England Patriots this weekend (and perhaps win the Superbowl?) Our perhaps our raven was Edgar Allen Poe himself, making his rounds in Baltimore on his birthday?
Not long after, Sophie pooped—a turd the size of a little, hard, malformed pinky finger. She hasn't pooped in days, after being given an antiemesis drug at the vet to stop a sudden bout of vomiting and diarrhea. It was a small big victory for a dog that's been eating white rice and turkey since Monday night and looks like the Hindenburg. I will never know if she thought the raven inspired her.
I don't even know how to feel about the raven myself. Although I am not some new-ager who thinks the universe bends to my will at every turn if I meditate hard enough, I am not opposed to finding meaning and patterns in everyday life. Some people find signs in nothing. They are the same people who don't read fiction because, as they explain, they don't understand the point in reading something that's not true.
I tend to think of fiction not as untruths but as possibilities. Just as I stretch my reality every day by daydreaming about 10-minute miles or speculating why Sophie and I have seen a raven (or why Sophie got such a stomach bug in the first place), fiction always begins on the premise of "what if?"
I'm surprised when, in a lot of books I read these days, nothing really happens. They're beautiful color field paintings or abstractions. I suppose a lot can be inferred from them. But on some level, I'm interested in discovering what the author inferred from them, why he or she was driven to examine this possibility.
I am surprised when the same thing happens in my work. I muddle around in a feeling, but nothing actually happens. What do I want to happen in my novel-in-progress? Why am I worried about the feeling of the fabric on someone's dress, the smell of a New England peninsula in the summer, if I don't know what my main character wants, why she has found herself in the situation she's in?
Something must happen. People must die. People must want to die for beliefs, for fame, for riches. People must overcome. People must be incredibly disappointed, beaten down. In the end, people must somehow find a way. In the end, dogs must poop.
Something must happen.
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD. She tweets at https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen.