Since today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I decided to base this post on one of his famous quotes:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
To me, this describes the writing process. Years ago in a writing workshop, I listened in awe as a wildly successful novelist and essayist described her writing process. Let’s call this award-winning writer “Star.”
Star taped a long sheet of white paper to the wall, pulled out several different colored felt-tip pens, and proceeded to illustrate how she outlined plot, character, emotion, and other components of her “novel-in-progress.” In fact, by the time she finished, it didn’t seem in progress to me; it seemed done—just written in shorthand rather than prose.
She began with a straight line across the paper. That represented nothing, she explained, except the point of departure. Life is not a straight line; neither is fiction.
One hour later, the piece of white paper was criss-crossed with multicolored lines representing each major character in the book. The basic plot line of the story dipped and rose over the original straight line. (It was red.) Brief notes were scribbled in various spots of the lines: Character meets conflict; character resolves conflict. Other notations were scattered over the page, like, character impacted by other character; foreshadow; what if? The paper looked like something some bored child had done with an Etch-a-Sketch.
The room was silent. Finally, one person asked, “You mean, when you start a novel you know exactly all of those details, you know exactly how it’s going to end?” The rest of us in the room waited.
“Of course not!” laughed Star. “As I engage in the writing itself, things change! I don’t know,” she rather tossed off. “Perhaps my muse takes over. Perhaps I see that something I thought would work actually won’t work. You have to shift when need be; change direction.”
And then she said something that resonated with me. “As time passes, things change. They change in important ways. That character you knew in October won’t be the same character in July. Of course, she’s basically the same person, but she has grown, had experiences, developed. You, the writer, have to follow her development. You can’t leave her where you found her.”
Now the people in the room were puzzled. “Then,” asked one person, pointing to the paper, “why do all that?”
Star seemed genuinely stunned. “You have to have an idea of where you’re going! Of course, you make changes as you go along the way, but if you don’t know where you intend to go, how will you ever get there?”
At that moment, I knew I would never be a writer. Having to do all that work before I wrote the first word was as alien to me as laying out all my ingredients and utensils in advance of preparing a meal. For me, the creative process was, go. Get it down. How could I possibly know everything I would need in advance?
A few months later I attended a lecture by E. L. Doctorow. He said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Now that’s my kind of writing!
But we are all different. Whether one plans meticulously, designing ones story before writing a single word, or simply writes the first sentence and continuing sentence by sentence, scene by scene, with the evolving development of our characters, writing any story is a leap of faith. It’s believing we have something to say, something someone else will want to read. And it’s remembering – things change.
Speaking for myself, I never see the whole staircase. I have a pretty good idea of what is at the top of the stairs, but I’m going to depend on my headlights to get me there.