At a recent author reading, I heard something that I thought only annoyed me. Afterwards, I found that a few other writers in attendance were also perturbed. The crux of our initially benign irritation was a claim made by an Important Writer about the creation of stories.
In response to a question about his writing process, he answered, to paraphrase: I sit down and see what happens; I follow the characters. I don’t really over think what’s going to happen.
At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal. Yet, the audience in question was made up of writers who were all in the midst of working on their own projects and, in many cases, embarking on writing careers. It seemed disingenuous to try to convince us that the craft of writing involved lighting some incense and saying a few magic words or just waiting for the characters to guide a novel to completion.
Wherefore art thou revision? Decisions about dialog? Plot structure? How does one handle inevitable problems? Subplots?
To be fair, the idea that one “follows the characters” is not a claim of magic. In fact, many how-to-write books urge budding writers to drive the story by choices the characters make rather than the author’s pre-determined plot outline. Important Writer can be excused for admitting to this basic technique. But in the face of more specific questions about technique, I think writers who speak to writers should offer something more substantial. Even the Romantic poets didn’t truly believe writing was just something that happened, despite their belief in inspiration (look at their rough drafts and journals and you’ll see guys like Keats & Wordsworth worked really hard to make their poems look like first-draft genius). When eager writers seek out some knowledge from a successful one, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an answer that moves beyond the vague and unsatisfying suggestion that things just kind of fall into place -- that answer can be saved for readers who are happy to think that writing is something akin to magic. But those of us who write know that every author has a different system for developing characters, researching, tracking plot. While I would agree that learning through trial and error is usually a good idea, a discussion of what one has gone through can’t be seen as inconsiderate or outlandish. In fact, how can I know what to try if I haven’t heard about other people’s experiments?
In the after-discussion, I spoke with a fellow writer who expressed dissatisfaction with the answer to one of his questions about craft. It was nice to know that I wasn’t being overly critical (this time). Yet, we both had to admit that sometimes when we write, surprising phrases and ideas do seem to appear magically. It’s the unexpected nature of plot points, character choices, turns of phrase that makes writing so much fun.
To illustrate: I was composing a story a few years ago about a teenage boy who was living at the Jersey shore with his uncle for the summer. In the midst of writing about the uncle’s life, I wrote that he had spent some time in the Philippines and fell in love with a woman but it didn’t work out because “he couldn’t handle killing chickens.” It was a strange line that seemingly came out of nowhere, even to me. And an outsider would definitely think that the mention of the Philippines and the line about killing chickens was random. But none of it came from nowhere. I needed the uncle to be single and wanted something a bit exotic to juxtapose with the boy’s life because the teenager had concerns about life being a long, dreary wasteland. I have been to the Philippines and had all sorts of information about life there. I had already mentioned the uncle was divorced and thought that having him back in the US after living abroad would give him a good perspective. Eventually I wrote an entire story about the uncle's time in the Philippines and how he falls in love with a woman whose father raises chickens. While the story went through some changes (the uncle doesn’t end up killing any fowl), the inspiration for the story was rooted in my own knowledge. It's hardly magic, though it definitely feels amazing.
Standing outside of the Important Writer reading, I joked to my writer friend that if he ever tried to tell an audience that his stories just came together magically, I would come up on stage and punch him. He suggested I just stand up call him a liar, as it would be more effective and cause less bruising. Despite the fact that we were joking, we both realized that the only way to eradicate this idea (that writing involves the use of possibly dangerous magic passed along through whispers and old books) was to pledge to be as open and honest as we can when speaking with other writers and readers. We shook on it after agreeing that signing our names in blood would be overkill.