Going Deep: Working on Your Story and Letting Your Story Work on You
By Carmelinda Blagg, Contributing Editor
We fiction writers often like to think we are in control of the writing process. After all, creating fiction is the active use of our imagination to conjure characters in a situation of conflict, skillfully weaving a story that is believable. It is a conscious, deliberate imagining where we get to have the last word, getting our characters into trouble, getting them out of trouble (maybe), creating chaos or restoring order. We are the ultimate chess master in this game of fictional storytelling.
But are we? And does it really work that way?
Sometimes, yes, of course. I give my characters names. I put them in situations with some obvious constraints, or hassles, or dilemmas. I create some real problems for them. This usually takes a couple of paragraphs, sometimes a couple of pages to establish. But then, once I’ve done that, something subtle happens. The world I’ve created becomes real to me. The characters do too. Sometimes, they come off the page and start following me around. They look over my shoulder when I’m picking out frozen peas at the supermarket, or while I’m gassing up the car or stirring my morning coffee. One of them might begin insisting that, with respect to a line of dialogue, for instance, it would be ridiculous for them to say the words I’m trying to put in their mouths. And all of a sudden, I feel like I’m being led around by the nose. I’m not the one calling the shots anymore.
This is when things can get weird. And a little scary. But also interesting. Especially during those early stages of drafting a story. You start by weaving together – out of seemingly thin air – one sentence then another, then a paragraph, then a page, and suddenly, you are deep into your story. And yet, often, still deeply uncertain about what is going on or what happens next.
This is not a bad thing. To be uncomfortable, mystified, even hopelessly confused, in the course of writing a story is, I have come to believe, really at the heart of ultimately creating a good story, one that has arisen from a struggle that produces something surprising, something real and true that maybe you hadn’t even intended when you started. If you insist on being too much in control, it shows – with writing that is flat and inauthentic, too much in the grips of assuaging the writer’s ego.
This uncertainty is part of the often unsettling psychology of writing.
Norman Mailer called it “the spooky art” – in fact, he titled a book to that effect, a collection of essays about the writing life. From one essay, titled “The Unconscious,” he shares insights gained through his own difficult trials. He came to understand that the unconscious mind of a writer will often come up with its own games of hide and seek.
“Over and over again,” he observes, “I discover that my unconscious is going to disclose to me what it chooses when it chooses. You can, to a limited degree, force it to respond, but that rarely occasions much happiness on either side.”
Every writer who’s been at it long enough understands this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat staring at that blank screen, straining for the next sentence, hoping to nail the elusive trail of my thoughts. I’ve got maybe a half dozen or more pages written, I know my story, I know the setting, the characters – I can feel it all in my bones. But, as I get deeper into it, things start to get slippery or turn blurry. I inevitably reach a point where I’m not sure what comes next, and a terrible uncertainty creeps in. By now, I’ve learned. I step back, go for a walk, have a cup of tea, or pick up those frozen peas at the grocery. Invariably, in the course of pursuing such distractions, wishing to just forget the story, or, at the very least, not to be undone by it, something buoys up – an image, a sentence, an observation, a crisp line of dialogue. It comes suddenly, as if insulted that you would dare to forget it. Then, I find myself rushing back to my desk to get it down.
I’ve reached a grudging trust with this process because it has taught me that the best writing comes from this kind of strangely aloof yet ever watchful biding of one’s time. It’s an engagement of a writer’s psyche following a path she has created, guided by nothing more than fragile hope. But one that, if she sticks with it, can lead her beyond the realm of false epiphanies, unscathed – and equally uninteresting – characters, and endings that come too quick and easy.
Resistance is as natural as momentum when creating stories inhabited by memorable, believable characters. Why? Because it is never easy to make anything believable if, as a writer, you aren’t convinced of it yourself. I hold that to be true as much for realistic fiction as for the most bizarre sci-fi or fantasy.
So, if you get stuck at a particular point in writing a story – and it will happen if what you’re doing is at all worthwhile – you might well take it as a given that something is going on you haven’t figured out yet. Something maybe your unconscious just isn’t ready to give up. That’s okay. Step back. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. But keep it going, even if it means having your character just build a fence, make a pot of soup, or take a bath. Your story must unfold from all those kitchens and bedrooms, those dingy bars, those backyards or mountaintops, those dark alleys and city high rises you’ve incorporated as the setting of your story. Such things Ron Carlson refers to as the “outer story”; a place that is “…the world of the story, the real concrete elements and places of the story that is composed of all sensory imagery.”
That world, made by the writer convincingly, can serve her in finding her story. As Carlson further observes: “In working with writers, one of the things I’ve been saying a lot in these past years is: solve all your problems through the physical world. That is, if you have a scene that is stalled or muddled, go back into it carefully and write the next thing that happens in real time. Don’t think, but watch instead: occupy.”
Occupy. It’s an interesting notion. And beguilingly simple too. One word that says to the writer, be there, pay attention, watch and listen. And, most importantly, let go, give up the need to control what’s happening.
It’s not the most comfortable place to be, believe me. But, it is where the deepest promise of your story often resides. And it’s often the place where that elusive rascal – the unconscious – can fill your ear with more than you ever thought possible.
The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer. 2004, Random House Trade Paperback Edition.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence by Ron Carlson. 2007, Graywolf Press.
Carmelinda Blagg serves as a Contributing Editor for O Dark Thirty. She has published her short fiction in a number of journals, including O-Dark-Thirty, Halfway Down the Stairs, Wanderlust Review, the anthology Best of the Web 2009, and more recently, The Lindenwood Review and Barrelhouse. She received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, she was recipient of an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her parents served during World War II; three brothers served in Vietnam and a fourth brother, now a retired Air Force Colonel, served as USAF base commander with the 374th Operations Group, 374th Airlift Wing, Yokota Air Base, Japan.