I’ve always envied novelists who can remember every detail in a novel draft well enough to see it all at once in their heads.

I’m certain plenty of folks can do it. There’s really no other accounting for the one-huge-novel-per-year output of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and their ilk. Although it might require a brain autopsy by neurologists of the far future to prove these folks see their whole stories at once as clearly as a valley from a mountaintop, I can deduce it. Here’s the logical proof: if they couldn’t, they would need twenty-three years to finish every novel, the way I do.

When it comes to the numerical, spatial, and geographical, though, I like to hope my memory’s somewhere up there in Oates territory. I still know everyone’s phone number from the 1980s, which isn’t to brag but only to point out how odd I am, and I’m pretty sure I can find my way back to anyplace I’ve driven before. So why did it take me until middle age to try to convert narrative memory to geographic memory?


Early this month I printed out the 300 pages of my novel draft and laid them out in a snaking pattern, chapter by chapter, around my house. With my husband away at a theater fellowship, there was no one around to complain about the commandeering of every room. For the next two weeks I wandered about in the story at random, revising out of sequence, getting to know the layout. Most pages were on the floor, and it added some stretching and yoga to my writing day to get down close enough to see the words. By the end of it I could visualize a map of it from start to finish as easily as I can of the county in Tennessee where I grew up.

A friend once told me that when they were converting William Faulkner’s Mississippi home into a museum, someone stripped a coat of paint and inadvertently revealed an enormous narrative schematic Faulkner had once inked onto a twenty-foot wall. To my friend I said something like, “What a great idea,” to which he sneered, “It’s because Faulkner was too drunk by then to even remember what he was writing,” as if nothing could be a more pathetic sign of one’s waning powers than mapping out a novel.

Maybe I internalized that fear. At any rate I’m now here to tell you he was wrong. For all I know his story about the walls at Rowan Oak could be bunk, too. I’d look it up, but it’s more interesting not to know.