|Deciduous Man by Frank Picini|
There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Once, I made the mistake of trying to describe a novel I was working on while I was still working on it. I told my friend, “I’m sorry. I’m doing a terrible job telling you about this.” He said, “Of course you are. If you could easily summarize it, you wouldn’t have to write it.”
Another way of saying this:
Have you ever read a book that seemed simple--deceptively so--and therefore maybe kind of easy to write, and you thought, why don’t I try this kind of thing? Or, is such an interesting concept, that it seems the book is the idea. Wouldn’t this whole writing life be so much easier and more lucrative and efficient if I wrote something like The Bridges of Madison County or some kind of science-fiction love story like The Time Traveler’s Wife or a book about the Titanic or a historic figure love story or a retelling of a Greek myth or a good, old-fashioned mystery? I could write romance. Or, what about YA? I could write a Judy-Blumeish sort of thing about a girl getting her period, couldn’t I? Something touching and wholesome and reassuring? Or, what about an adventure story, or something silly like dinosaurs hatching in sock drawers. Or, here’s a thought: what about a group of children staying with an odd, old uncle during World War II. What if the children stumble through a secret portal in the back of a wardrobe and end up in a whole new world? A magical world? I could people that world in any crazy way I wanted…
Have you ever thought: all I really need is a good idea.
It’s like staring into a Jackson Pollack painting.
You think: it looks so easy. It should be so easy. I must be doing something wrong.
I’ve heard Bret Lott say that he begins writing—any kind of writing—with this thought in his head: “I don’t know anything.” He writes to find out.
A lot of writers say this kind of thing, that writing is an act of discovery. That we write to understand. If this is true, then it follows that it’s not about a good idea, or at least not completely. It’s instead about a question, or a peculiar curiosity. It’s about wanting to know something.
But, I think it’s even murkier and more unnamable than that: we write to find out what we want to find out. Or at least it works this way for me.
This is both good news and bad news. I find it comforting to know it’s supposed to be hard. That I’m supposed to feel a little lost, wandering through a draft. It’s unsettling, though, to feel this way. Lost. And, of course, our stories can’t feel that way in the end. After all the revising. If we are lost when we start, we have to be confident and sure-footed in the execution, the story-telling. We have to be very bold in our telling, and yet, also, always searching.
So, an idea, in and of itself, won’t do. At least not for me. I can’t summarize first, then write, though a lot of advice I received early on was to do just that. Sometimes I wish it could be this way. That I could just write down things I already know.
This is so hard. So messy. But, it’s really true. We must begin—or, at least, I know that I must begin—where Bret Lott told me to begin. I must begin by not knowing. I have to dwell in that place of uncertainty. Abide there. Think. And not flinch. Not wish too hard for something easier.