You learn, as a young writer, that when authoring a scene and the larger collective story, the hope is to transport the reader into the world that you are creating, to show the wet streets of Asheville, the squash soup on the kitchen vinyl floor, the raise of a chest when the person’s whose chest it is just received news about a car accident that his daughter may have been part of. You want to plant the reader, you want to carry them, you want to shift the structure of the current place in their own present so they can leave for awhile, to go into what you’ve written.
And where do you carry them? What do you bring them to see? We can’t often say, because when we we set off down the river we don’t always know where the river ends. In life, the living is in the movement–so, too, in writing. Donald Barthelme said, “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.” Our not-knowing is what allows us to be on the journey that our reader will eventually route on. The discovery, as it unfolds while we write, keeps us honest and patient, keeps our breathing metered.
So how do we do this? It isn’t so much of a technique as it is an approach. We of course know something of our story, our characters. We know something takes place in Moline, we know John is recently unemployed, we know he loses his wallet in a park. We know the weather, the types of trees around, but we don’t know all of what’s going to happen. That’s up to what occurs in the process of our writing, that’s why we write–to know. The knowing comes during, the knowing comes then. The knowing doesn’t come before because then the fish is already on the hook and you’ve already cast with it on the end of your line and you’re just waiting to reel it in. What’s important is for us to permit the attributes we do know, the elements, to do their work and for us to then observe that. Write one good sentence ,and then another, always allowing ample room for development. Cast with an empty hook. Then there’s that chance for innovation, then there’s raw creativity, and that’s where the art blooms from.
Take fifteen slips of paper. On five write jobs: elephant trainer for the circus, captain of a dive boat charter, mail room clerk, etc. Fill them as you please. On another five write down characters: a blind 19-year-old mother, a former body builder, and so forth. And on the last five write motivations: wants to be rich, running from the law, blah, blah. Blind draw one from each pile and write. Put something together in short, complete form or start something longer. And don’t decide where you’re going before you begin to type. You have interesting elements. Let the story go where it needs to go. You, then, report it.
This was just beautiful I’m going to read it every day when I’m writing—which should be every day. Thank you!
Thanks, Kelly. Do you work best when writing daily? I’m always interested in writers’ scribing habits.
I certainly try to, good intentions and all. But I don’t get too hung up on how often. As long as I write when something needs to be said, then I’m good with that. I blog twice a week, so that helps keep me fresh, and I also write creative nonfiction and am working on a novel.
Thank you for this.
Thanks, ChiChi. Cheers, blessings, good fortune, and healthy plants to you.
Thanks, Patty. Say hello to the south for me. And come visit the north.
This is a great idea and method for letting go. As a “pantser”, this is how I write anyway, I just don’t usually have even the slips of paper to help me out. Given my current drought, the slips of paper may very well be a good method to get me going again. Thanks!
And if not now, sometimes, as you know, those little writing exercises work down the road. Your brain stores those ideas in the back of your cheek and you kind of forget they’re there. Or maybe they just weren’t ready to be born yet.
Really good thoughts Ron. Thanks for this. I do know it is true for me. I am working on two very different stories that I have hopes will grow to novellas or beyond, and I am pretty clear I know next to nothing about one, and only slightly more about the other. Stephen King, in his wonderful book “On Writing” says it like you Ron. You don’t have to know it all, you just have to show up and let the characters show you. Thanks again.
That’s a fine book, the Stephen King one. I was concerned when I saw it that many writers would discount it because he’s a genre writer and not a “real, literary” writer, which is silly. I’m glad to see when writers mention it as a book that does indeed help us with our craft and isn’t just a autobiography we pick up in the airport to read during travel.
Isn’t it something when you start writing and you hope or plan it to be a longer piece and then it shows you it’s going to be a short story? It’s like when you hope your kid is going to be a dancer and he ends up a cartographer. With both, you just go with it.
Ron, I am always touched and motivated by your articles. This one is excellent.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, SBP.
Very interesting premise and a great idea! Nan 🙂