600 Miles Through Rough Country
Some days I swear that, writing-wise, I’m like Bart Simpson* muttering “can’t sleep clowns will eat me.” Except, of course, I substitute write for sleep. Why will the clowns eat me? The temptation to be really really glib here is almost overpowering, but I’m going to try to play this one straight.
I’m trying to finish three short stories and start a new book. I know what all four works are about; what I don’t exactly have a handle on is some of the events in those stories. This is what happens when you write by discovery rather than plan. The metaphor I usually use to describe the process is that I have a topographical map of the story’s terrain, but I don’t have the road map. I know who the characters are, I know where they’ll wind up (emotionally, if not physically), but I don’t know whether they’re taking the train or walking 600 miles through rough country. Sometimes I know something about rest stops they’ll be making (to pull this poor, weary metaphor out to its last thread) or people they’ll encounter on the way. Sometimes I find myself fetched up somewhere, blinking and wondering where the Hell my character’s got to, only to find that it is, indeed, somewhere useful, probably necessary, to the story.
This can be disconcerting. For a life-imitates art metaphor: I went to a friend’s birthday party on Friday last, held at a restaurant somewhere in the East Bay. I had printed out directions, got under way, and it was only when I scanned the directions as I was crossing the Bay Bridge that I realized that my computer had, for some reason, not printed the instructions after “cross the Bay Bridge.” I called my daughter, asked her to look up the restaurant, get directions on MapQuest and text them to me (I love living in the Future). She did. Unfortunately, shortly after she texted the directions to me but just before I pulled over to look at them my cell phone battery died. So there I was, wandering in a place that might have been anywhere, looking for a very specific somewhere, with directions I could not access, no way of calling for specifics, and with a birthday cake sitting in the front seat. I finally found the place by following the BART tracks (because I knew where the place was relative to the BART station). Once I got there it all made sense. Also, it was a lovely party.
But while I was wandering in the wilderness of San Leandro I felt something very much like the way I’ve been feeling lately when I sit down to write. I can try this turn here, I think it’s in the right direc–oh, Hell, it’s a dead end. Okay, U-turn, back on that road. I’m going east, but don’t I need to go north? Except that I see something over there that’s what I’m looking for and… Yes, that works. Okay, let’s go on in this direction for a little while longer and see…yes. Okay. Good. Feeling a little better about this now…
I’ve been doing this long enough to have a reasonable certainty that I will find my way to where each of these stories needs to go. I’m pretty sure that the clowns won’t eat me–but it may be a close thing sometimes.
*thanks to Deb G for setting me straight on who was saying this.