Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Unknown Current

Last week, I had a wonderful writing chat with friend. We met at a coffee shop and spent close to three hours talking about the process of fiction, the books and ideas that fascinate us, the how-to of taking an idea and turning it into a manuscript then into a polished manuscript.

I rarely get the chance to leave my own head and talk about this stuff with an actual person. And I left the place with a sense of purpose, practically humming with ideas... Here's one of them (Pardon the giddy nature of this post, my writer-self doesn't get out much):

Novels have long been compared to children. There's that "kill your darlings" thing, and the "sending it out into the world" thing and, yes, there are so many, many ways that a book is indeed like a child that we birth and raise and tidy up. But the comparison doesn't quite work for me. Kids are so tangible, evidence of the sloppy, sweet, grubby, constant, push and pull nature of the world. They connect us to the "now" as nothing else can.

But the writing process is different, a strange and mysterious alchemy, ethereal to its core. Writing is not about the "now" at all.

I have no actual memory of writing my novel Family, Genius, Species. The book is 300 some pages long and... poof! nothing! I don't mean it was an easy process, just that I don't remember it in much the way I don't remember the pain of childbirth. (You'd think it'd be impossible to forget birthing three children without the aid of epidurals, but no, I assure you it IS, in fact, possible, and probably the reason I have three kids in the first place.)

But to have forgotten the span of time it took to birth 80,000 words? How can that be?

I remember some tangential parts-- the many days I ditched my family to stare at my keyboard (really, I can't type with out looking). I remember the guilt involved, and returning to household chaos, feeling as wrung out as a damp towel. I remember, vaguely, the countless cups of coffee I consumed, the scrawled notes left while driving through the early morning dark on my way to work. But the moment of creation is a howling blank, a sort of indefinite hum.

I mean, where did the idea for FGS come from?????? Until I wrote the novel, I had no real interest in cheesy 70's music... or gibbons for that matter. I couldn't imagine writing from the point of view of a middle aged man. I mean, really.

As it was originally conceived, the book was a mother-daughter story, about a mother (Carla) so ambivalent that she does something horribly neglectful. I had a first scene in mind-- The mother, sitting in her boyfriend's car watching her daughter cross the street on her way home from school and deliberately NOT picking her up. I spent a few weeks of commuting-time trying to iron out the plot-- what would happen between the mother and daughter from that miserable starting scene? How would they reconcile?

But when I began to write, something crazy happened: The barely-worth-my-notice boyfriend hijacked my imagination! And that mother-daughter story I thought I was writing became something else entirely.

I have no idea how this happened. It was as if I'd dipped my hand in a pond, cupped an unknown current.

An although I remember all the re-plotting that occurred from this point onward, the cerebral sort of exercise of developing setting and plot and character detail, I don't remember the actual writing at all.

Writer John Gardner describes the reader's experience of fiction as a "fictive dream". He says writers are to suggest enough detail to allow for this dream. But it seems to me that the writing process itself, can be a sort of fictive dream. That writers experience their own fiction in much the same way.

So... am I just off-the-deep-end crazy? Where do your words come from? What's your process like?


Ariel Swan said...

It's wonderful that you felt so inspired after your coffee meeting. I often feel refreshed after our writing roup meetings - I always feel like I have a new perspective. But sometimes it is just nice to talk about the process and the ideas -and not the specific words.

My ideas come from the world around me - but they are the story I imagine happening in a version of this world that is just out of reach.

I think the creation is so ephemeral because it already exists - we just pull it out of that ether and give it a corporeal being.

Travener said...

Interesting. I'd love to know how the gibbons fit in. I once opened a novel with an organgutan, having escaped from the zoo, bounding through snow-covered trees. I try to plot things out now, because I found if I didn't, I'd start with a vague idea and get...nowhere...after awhile. But even so, things happen in the process of writing that affect the outcome of he novel. For example, my protagonist's partner started out as just his sidekick, but wound up playing a critical (and evil) role in the betrayal of his partner. So it is sort of like water running downhill, finding its own path, carving channels in ways that you hadn't expected.

maryw said...

The thing just sort of wrote itself, at least at first.

Now I have to un-write it.

Love those writing chats--glad you had a good one.

N. Blank said...

I love coffee/book chats! I love it when I notice strangers listening in on the convos too, wondering about these fictional characters we talk about as if they're our best friends. Often I'll refer to my characters as my friends and my book as my baby.

Great post! Very inspiring!