Finding the Form with Brent van Staalduinen
First, a confession: “Gone Supernova” began its life as a commissioned piece for another literary journal. The editor approached me to see if I’d be interested in writing something, and I pitched an essay that would explore the books that carried through my hospital stay and recovery from a nasty bout of bacterial pneumonia. In the end, the journal spiked it, saying that it wasn’t “literary enough” (still scratching my head over that one), and freeing me up to submit elsewhere.
Yesterday, as I was starting to clean my desk in anticipation of working on my next novel—my ritual is to begin with a clean desk, although it rarely remains uncluttered—I happened upon the brainstorming sheet I used to organize my scattered thoughts. I’ve attached it here, and you can see some of the jot-notes that formed the skeleton of “Gone Supernova” (working title: “Laid Low”). It reminded me of the final deadline Emily at TNQ set for me (today) after a number of apologetic postponements, which took me back to the deadline that the other journal set. I had to smile—I pushed the other journal’s deadline(s), too.
“Laid Low” was an appropriate title, if pedestrian, because the centre of the experience for me was the humiliating reality of not being able to be myself around anyone, including my wife and daughters. Not being able to breathe in the necessary amount of oxygen made everything harder: walking, talking, thinking, loving, creating, dreaming. All of it.
But as I was brainstorming the “stuff” of the visit, the episodes that would form the structure of what would become “Gone Supernova” (the bullet-points on the left), words from the various books that were part of the experience began whispering to me (the messy bits to the right). I think organizing this essay was one of the more difficult writing tasks I’d ever set out for myself, because either my ideas just wouldn’t sit still or they’d be just off-centre, disorienting, like the aura one gets before a migraine. Which was how much of my hospital visit seemed, of course: me in the middle, hazy and confused and scared, and the experiences swirling around and through me in a trance-like mist.
That’s how I landed on the final structure of the piece. It would be a narrative of my experience, cut up and into by corollary segments formed by my own thoughts and fears and the words of others, including from the novels I had with me in the hospital. The narrative parts would be concrete and sensory; the corollaries would expand and contract the narrative, hopefully in a breathless and somewhat disorienting manner. Kind of like breathing with broken lungs.
I’m so pleased with how “Gone Supernova” turned out, and that it found a perfect home in the pages of TNQ: thanks to Susan Scott for picking it up. I’m also thankful for free, unrestricted medical care, and for the generosity of so many generous souls along the way. Special thanks to Michael Christie and Madeleine Thien, who encouraged me to borrow some of their beautiful words.
Photos courtesy of Brent van Staalduinen
Brent van Staalduinen is the author of the novels BOY and NOTHING BUT LIFE (both forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2020), and SAINTS, UNEXPECTED (Invisible Publishing). His award-winning stories have appeared in notable journals on both sides of the Atlantic. He lives and writes in Hamilton. Visit www.brentvans.com for more information about Brent and his writing, and follow him on social media (@brentvans everywhere).