This story came to me deep in the early days of the pandemic—October 2020, to be exact—during a one-day online writing class taught by Jeffrey Ford, one of my favorite writers, in conjunction with Clarion West.
The class was mostly about getting out of your own way and letting the words flow. I thought it fitting, considering that I had been blocked for months. Like many other creatives, my brain was saturated with everything pandemic and all its related concerns: no vaccinations in sight yet, worries about food and money, being forced to start the freelance editing career I’d always dreamed of because I got let go from my last well-paying job. Even when I didn’t want to hear news about it, I couldn’t escape it. Even when I slept, I would have dreams about being in school again, which would somehow give way to anxieties about being in a crowd.
I mindlessly consumed media that was easy and delightful to consume. I had no room for creating for myself because I was busy trying to survive.
I made the time to write in Halloween 2020, and I’m glad I did. This story was born from the time I adamantly set aside. It was extremely short by my standards (and I tend to think in novelettes), but it was enough for me. It reminded me that I still had it in me to be creative; I was just too damn tired to do it sustainably at the time. And because I was so damn tired, I gave myself permission to reach for all the favorites I could think of for this story.
Around the same time, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi was first published. I’ve been in love with her work since I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a decade before. I read Piranesi cover to cover, even during a dark night when the power went out and I only had an old reading light—it was not nearly as ambitious as Jonathan Strange, but something about its ideas stuck with me. This is where the unfinished statues in the story come from.
Unlike in Piranesi, I set the story in a museum and took inspiration from the Getty Museum in LA, one of my favorite places on earth. I conceived of the interior as a spiral because I have always been in love with the shape—in fact, it is the one that frequently appears in many of my drawings in some form or other. According to Taschen’s Book of Symbols, the spiral is the most widespread shape in all of nature. It is also the basic structure of the labyrinth; both of them suggest journeys. They mirror the mythic journey but also psychological development—at the center, you don’t necessarily begin to know what is unknowable, but you do learn more about yourself.
This was all stuff I knew subconsciously, stuff that melded together through a combination of a humanities-heavy education and a turbulent decade of unlearning thoughts, habits, and beliefs that did not serve me.
Outside the bounds of class, still letting my fingers do the talking as I typed, I wanted to show what would happen if someone—like the character Anna—came to learn so much at the end of the museum spiral, and yet, rejects all that for what she thinks is comfortable. She reverses her journey through the spiral, comes close to getting what she thinks she wants, and is cursed to always have what is reachable just beyond her reach.
Knowledge and its attainment is not meant to be comfortable or comforting. We may only look backward in time; this looking backward should always be in service of moving forward. To move backward as well would be to collapse entirely.