When I was living in New York I had an idea for a novel. The protagonist was a night janitor at the Museum of Natural History. He swept floors and polished windows and spoke only to the animals entombed in their Plexiglas dioramas. Several times a week I went to the museum to sit on a bench in the Hall of North American Mammals and write.
I realized after writing 30 or so pages that my tale had no plot—just scene after scene of the lifeless animals, the janitor, and his unfathomable internal monologue. Clearly my novel needed other human characters. I invented two friends for the janitor: an insomniac cab driver and an Albanian woman who sold pretzels from a pushcart in front of the museum.
I tinkered with my three characters for weeks, trying to make their lives intersect in compelling ways. But it didn't work. It was wooden, artificial; I couldn't breathe life into any of it. The janitor was incapable of love or friendship, unable to function outside his narrow universe. Poor man, it was not his fault; I had made him that way. I scribbled on, imprisoned in my pointless story until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I closed my notebook. From my bench in North American Mammals I noticed a small boy gazing at a snarling bobcat.
“Does that look real to you?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
He looked at me as if I were a complete idiot. “Because it’s not moving and it’s stuffed.”