The first assumption is anyone can do it, expressed as, ‘just how hard can it be?’ When I meet people and am forced by cruel fate into casual conversation (which, as an introvert, I loathe with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns and try to avoid whenever humanly possible), sooner or later, the conversation inevitably turns to what I call The Question: “What do you do?” (The implied but unspoken clincher is either ‘for-a-living’ or, now I’ve retired from a nearly 35-year teaching career, its close cousin, ‘with-your-time.’)
The second assumption is, as a writer, you casually sit down at your laptop après a leisurely dinner on dark and stormy nights, and a few hours and a couple of glasses of fine Bordeaux later, triumphantly emerge from your velvet perch with completed magnum opus in hand. Perhaps a little sweat, a smidgeon of blood, some minor discomfort, but essentially, There You Are. (Oh, yeah, some ‘minor discomfort.’ That’s a good one. Not unlike the ‘minor discomfort’ of giving birth. And yeah, I know: I’m a male. I can’t possibly know about the minor discomfort of giving birth. Well, maybe not, but I watched it --- four times --- as my saintly wife endured it, and it made me really, really glad it wasn’t my job. Minor discomfort, indeed.)
So now, today’s Moment of Truth and Clarity: the writing process doesn’t work that way at all, folks. At least, not for me.
How does it work? Glad you asked. Very simply, like this (pay attention; there’ll be a quiz later):
A) I’m a writer, and I take dictation.
B) My supposedly fictitious characters determine what they say and do, not me.
C) I’m really not in control of the process. At all.
D) When the Muse shows up and all these factors mesh as Heaven intended, it’s a wondrous thing.
C.S. Lewis expressed it superbly: “I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say.” Well done, Jack. Couldn’t have put it better myself. But to non-writers, that statement is nonsensical. Not to mention it flies in the face of our control-obsessed society. So, let’s unpack the idea a little.
You know, in many areas of my life, I’m gloriously concrete-sequential… and as a teacher, I most certainly was, because, frankly, I can’t imagine dealing with hormonal adolescents any other way --- not and maintain my sanity, anyway: clear plans and outlines; structure; checklists; precise directions and expectations; nothing vague or left to chance, because that’s when misinterpretation rears its ugly head. (Yeah, maybe us concrete-sequential types are control freaks, too, a little bit. Just a little. You know, like the Pacific holds a little water.) Although, I want to be very clear, my classroom was most definitely not a joyless, regimented boot camp. Leastways, I never thought so. And based on their feedback, neither did the vast majority of my students.
But, as a writer… well, I can’t lay claim to any concrete-sequential stuff. When I first started writing seriously, lo, many years ago, I did attempt to complete detailed chapter outlines and things of that ilk. But it didn’t work. Because my characters, bless their stubbornly independent little hearts, insisted on going off and doing things their way… which was, not infrequently, at odds with what I wanted them to do. And yeah, I realize that statement is nonsensical to most non-writers, too. How can characters have wills of their own? the non-writer asks, giving me that sideways buffalo look which means they think I’m certifiable. Well, that’s easy: because, to me, they’re not puppets on strings, or keystrokes on a page --- they’re real people, gloriously smart and stupid, loving and vindictive, consistent and random and… in other words, they come alive in my mind. Like real people, they can be predictable most of the time and then, just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they go and do something massively unpredictable, hijacking your carefully thought-out plot and sending it careening down all sorts of rabbit holes --- previously unthought-of, unimaginable avenues. And that’s wonderful… frustrating at times, too, but mostly wonderful. Because that’s creativity.
(I will admit that, sometimes, particularly in complex/ambiguous situations, I’ll slowly back away from the computer and handwrite an outline detailing different ways the situation could resolve. But I never plan too far, because experience has shown it to be largely useless. Once the logjam has cleared and we’re off again, I just buckle in for the ride --- kind of like a hobbit barrel-riding down the raging river.)
Now, for all this to work, the Muse must show up, regularly. She can’t just call, saying, “Not tonight, darling, I’ve got a headache,” and she can’t show up and then say, “Sorry, darling, I’ve got nothing for you tonight, so let’s watch YouTube videos” because then, we’re in a real pickle. (Non-writers refer to such situations as ‘writer’s block.’) And she can be something of a fickle bitch at times, so you want to treat her with respect. Fortunately for me, she tends to show up, with great ideas, most of the time --- and I notice the more I’m writing, the better it gets. Just as Tolkien said it takes gold to generate gold, it’s the same with ideas.
So, when the Muse shows up, ideas flowing, characters buzzing with ideas of their own, saying and doing all sorts of things, being real people… ‘tis a glorious thing.
And that’s how it works.