“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
– E. L. Doctorow
All right, let’s write a story, or rather: let’s examine the writing of the story. Not the story, the writing,not the product, the process. In reading we examine the story–and we are expert readers. It’s what we’ve been trained and drilled in. To read a story is to react to it, and to write a story is to stay alert and open to the possibilities that emerge as each sentence cuts its way into the unknown. In writing, we “find” the story, and our training as readers is of less help than our training as human beings, as men and women who see, feel, and intuit and who are open to possibilities.
. . . Beginning a story without knowing all the terrain is not a comfortable feeling. It’s uncomfortable enough in fact to keep most people away from the keyboard. In our lives we’re used to knowing what we’re doing, where we’re going. It would be strange to get in the car and think you were going to pick up the kids at school, but not be really sure. But there are moments in the process of writing a story when you must tolerate that feeling: you stay alert to everything that is happening and by listening and watching, you find out where you are going by going there. Somebody else may get in the car.
. . . The single largest advantage a veteran writer has over the beginner is this tolerance of not knowing. it’s not style, skill, or any other dexterity. An experienced writer has been lost in those woods before and is willing to be lost; she knows that being lost is necessary for the discoveries to come. The seasoned writer waits, is patient, listens to her story as it talks to her. Now I’ve started being a little mystical here, and I want to avoid the sense that writing is magic and not work. The story isn’t going to talk to you, but things are going to happen in the heat of writing that cannot be predicted from outside the act itself. Much of a writer’s work is exploration, and that involves so many things he cannot know from the outside. And we all agree that it is more comfortable to be outside the story considering it, than inside the story struggling to see it. Comfort isn’t an issue.
. . . We live in a society that doesn’t offer any support or approval for ventures that aren’t clearly articulated and aligned for a goal. A writer gets past this. It’s going to be a mess before you’re finished, and you may not have a name for the mess or understand its utilitarian purposes. There aren’t words for everything. For now, we’ll call it the draft of a story.
. . . I specify all types of things; if I don’t know the car, it’s a Buick. I like the word Buick. To reach for your atlas, the yellow pages, your book of names, thesaurus, dictionary there at your writing desk during your time is a mistake. (Worse: Google, which didn’t exist when I wrote this story [“The Governor’s Ball].) You aren’t looking for the right name, you’re looking for a reason to stop. . . . I try to get a name I believe right away, but if it isn’t right, there’ll be plenty of time to set that name right after my hour or two or six at the typewriter is over. Burned-out and dizzy with success and the faint hum of carpal tunnel, I’ll have all evening to locate the right name and do a ten-second search and replace.
. . . What has invaded the writer’s room more than any of these editorial monitors, is the Internet, and I will jut say that the Internet is the enemy of a writer’s day. The Internet is a heaping helping of what everyone else is thinking–and right this minute. If you open your e-mail, you are asking to let go of the day. I don’t want to belabor this obvious point, but we have welcomed this convenience right onto the very screens where we are writing stories, and e-mail is not a friend to the writer.
In his book What The Dog Saw (containing the best of his writing from The New Yorker), Malcolm Gladwell writes:
Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else’s and says, angrily, “I don’t buy it.” Why are they angry? good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade . . . It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head–even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.
A couple or three years ago, driving from Denver to Seguin with Oldest Grandson in tow, he and I took turns reading Eragon (a teen fantasy novel), written by fifteen-year-old Christopher Paolini (and published when he was 17 years old).
I enjoyed the book as much as Grandson #One (labeled #One because he was the firstborn grandson; all of my grandchildren are NUMBER ONEs!).
Looking forward to reading Swordbird by Nancy Yi Fan to and with my youngest granddaughter (for I think this book would appeal to her – and quite likely to me as well).
One is never too young to write (published or not) nor too old (witness Alistair MacLeod’s first novel, No Great Mischief, published when he was 65 years old – for which he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award).
A friend recently wrote that her thirteen-year-old niece won a writing award (this niece is in a literary family that encourages independent thought and creativity – so the news was not surprising). Congratulations to this budding writer!