Thursday, July 16, 2009

One Hurdle into Another

So, you're writing a novel. You've been writing the novel for months. You meet the book every day, first thing in the morning. It waits for you. On good days it is friendly and talks to you. You start to feel the characters in the room. Some days the writing soars, some days it slogs along, its feet stuck in the muck at the swamp bottom. It's the typical stuff of writing a novel. Each day goes by and more pages are full of ink, and if you're lucky, with each day you begin to see a bit further ahead, begin to see scenes, however murky, images in sepia and a bit out of focus, like E.L. Doctorow says when he talks about writing being like driving at night with the headlights on; you can't always see everything around you, but if you pay close enough attention you can reach your destination. As the story begins to unfold and more scenes become visible to you, the horizon seems a little closer.

Eventually, as happened to me this week, I reached a scene that I've been writing towards for months, a scene that offers a critical turning point in the novel. It occurs more than two hundred pages into the novel. It is a scene I've seen vaguely for months, the exposure of a character's past that is pivotal to the novel. In this case, it is a scene that stands at the apex of the rising action, so I have approached it like a climber, and like a climber, I hope the way down off this summit is an easier route than the way up. I want to think it will be, for the flat lands beyond should be visible now, right?

I finished the scene after many days of work on it with elation. Like all writing worth reading, it will need work still. A great deal of work. But essentially the scene feels as if it has accomplished what I had hoped for. The drafted scene felt fulfilling. It seemed to move the characters into a space in which they were comfortable and established the past I had in mind in a way that felt organic and believable.

The elation lasted about twenty four hours. Then came the realization (as if this should have been any kind of surprise) that I had no real idea what happened next, no real ideal of how these characters will resolve their lives. If this surprises you, it holds no such surprise for me. This is the nature of how I work. The further into the text I am, the more I've learned about it and its direction, but at best the full story appears rather like a Polaroid developing out of the haze. In this instance I've reached a critical moment alongside my characters, but there is more story of course. So I go back to work. I listen for their voices. I try not to panic. I return to that strange but wonderfully satisfying place of semi-consciousness where fiction happens most often for me, so focused on the novel that it begins to mix and distort with actual life at times and writing seems a sort of perpetual dream state. I hang on to the shadows of the larger book, the blurry horizon of its potential ending, the abstractions of what the characters need to accomplish in their lives. From these abstractions I scan for the detailed scenes that will give them motion and voice and possibility, and I wait. I write more and I wait more. I watch for shape. I watch for scenes that begin to form in my subconsciousness. I read backward and I write forward and listen.

I would be lying if I failed to admit that such moments scare me a great deal. There are days when I fully believe I will never find the next word, let alone the next scene or the book's ending. It has been a week full of such days where writing a paragraph takes exhausting effort and the result still looks like it has been insulted with an autopsy. I long for the days when the writing takes control and I turn pages of new material one after another. This must be something parallel to how the bipolar patient feels all of his life. Still, the only answer I know with certainly is that it is time to go back upstairs and work some more. Find the next word and trust that it leads to one after that. If these are characters worth asking someone to share their lives with, then I must trust them to offer direction, for if they are written with real integrity, they will reveal the next events their lives hold.

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