The Literary Leap–Writing as an Act of Faith

Have you ever walked in the dark?  Seriously.  Say it’s the middle of the night, and, for some reason, you need to get up.  Maybe you need to head down the hall to the bathroom.  Maybe you failed to eat supper and now, your stomach is grumbling at 2:00 a.m., and you remember there’s a blueberry pie stashed in the back of the fridge.  Maybe you just can’t sleep and need to get up, stretch your limbs, unwind before lying down again.

 

It’s dark.  Pitch-dark, a moonless, starless night, a gentle rain falling from low-lying clouds, the sound of the drops pittering and pattering off the eaves and gutters and windows.  But your significant other is in bed with you, and you don’t want to disturb them.  So you don’t flick on any lights.  You just plant your feet onto the floor and stand up, stepping slowly across the room and out into the hall, where, also for the sake of discretion (maybe there’s a house guest snoring away on the living room coach), you keep the lights off.

 

Dark.  You know the house well, of course.  You live in it.  But you generally navigate it during the day, or with the lights on.  Now you feel your way through darkened corridors and Stygian rooms until you reach the kitchen.  Finally, opening the refrigerator door, some light!  And yes.  There’s the pie.  You secure two pieces, place them on a plate, grab a fork, and . . . close the refrigerator door.  Plunged into darkness again (the house guest is in the next room and you don’t want to disturb them), you push through the dark and sit down at the dining room table.  There, you eat your pie (without seeing it).

 

And when you finish, you have to walk through the dark again, empty the plate into the sink, navigate the pitch-dark hall, back to the bedroom.  You see nothing. Everything is done by memory, by feel, familiarity.

Faith.

Indeed.  Are you sure there is nothing in your path, some tripping hazard blocking your way?  The dog had been playing with his toys earlier.  Didn’t he leave one of them in the hall . . .  Hmm.  But you keep going, slowly, moving forward, trusting in your instincts, your senses apart from sight that will guide you through.  You are not crippled with fear.  You dare to proceed.

 

And eventually, of course, you safely reach your bed.  You have completed your mission, in the dark–and in the process shoveled in a thousand nighttime calories.  But who’s counting?

 

You had an awareness of where you were going–from your memory of the house and its layout, from feeling your way forward.  You couldn’t see.  You couldn’t be sure until you took the next step.  But you believed.

You jumped, as it were, and landed on your feet.

***************************

It is much the same when we write–or do anything creative, really.  Think about it.  An idea hits you, unasked for, unplanned.  You feel inspired to write it, to unfurl the story wherever it leads.  To create characters that dream and fear and imagine and make mistakes and pursue redemption and say all manner of dialogue over hundreds of pages of manuscript.

Where do their words come from?  How do you know what they will say, exactly, to whom, and when?  As you sit down at your PC or laptop to begin, a blank screen staring back at you, do you know what page 76 will look like?  How about page 200?  Or page 6?

 

What will character X do in chapter 16?  In short, this idea you have, this general outline of a story–how will it develop once you begin keying in the words, once the sentences build on themselves, one upon another upon another?  The answer is–you don’t know.  You have no idea.   You have a general outline of the story, as a whole.  But–aside from maybe a scene here or there–the details are a mystery.  The plot developments are far off, concealed signposts in a mist.  The characters haven’t spoken a word yet.  Some characters will emerge in your story that you aren’t even aware of yet.  But when the magic of storytelling commences, when you dare to move from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter, they will come upon the scene and make their presence known.

 

Writing, creating, is an act of faith.  There are no guarantees.  No promises.  While you may have the first chapter, the first scene, planned out, you most certainly do not have every word mapped out.  You key in the first sentence with a belief, a silent trust that the second sentence will come into existence, and then a third, and a fourth, and, ultimately, a thousandth and a ten thousandth.  But it’s all started in the dark.

Perhaps the story you’re beginning was always there, somewhere deep in your subconscious.  Or somewhere out there in the stars, floating amid the dark matter of space, unobserved, a literary Schrodinger’s Cat–until the moment when you observed it and breathed life into it and, now, are revealing it, syllable by syllable.

 

Yet, even as you reveal the story, you cannot know that it will be told in its entirety.  What if you get stuck in chapter 10?  What if you see two forks in the road, and, unlike Frost, cannot decide which to take?  What if you get fenced in somewhere along the middle of the story, unable to see any way out to a satisfying conclusion?  What if you can’t finish the thing?

 

The path ahead is murky, and it will only begin to clear and lighten as you walk along it, your destination never guaranteed.  It’s dark.  You cannot see where you’re going, not exactly.  You have only a general sense of direction.  You have to trust the process, have faith in the muse.  Believe in the story to reach you and talk to you as you continue placing one foot in front of the other, in the dark.

 

And keep going.

Something far better than a piece (or two) of blueberry pie will be waiting for you when you get there.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

The World at Your Doorstep

It often happens this way . . .

An idea strikes.  How it strikes, why it strikes, you do not know.  It just does–a gift from the universe, the birth of a new story you feel meant to write.  You want to celebrate.  There is nothing like the euphoria of a new idea that grabs you, demands to be written, kicks and yells and screams to be let loose onto the page.

idea!

 

But then . . . you realize the idea is layered, rich, complex.  It’s not a short story.  It’s a novel.  Uh-oh.  A novel needs a plot, and a subplot, and, maybe, a sub-sub-plot!  It needs direction, organization, planning.  Suddenly the inspired idea doesn’t seem so inspired anymore.  How can such a gigantic project be tackled?  Where to begin?

toomanychoices

 

At this point, you may be tempted to borrow from Stephen King, who, in his memoir On Writing, explained that when he begins a novel, he often does not know where he’s heading.  He gets an idea, an image, a scene–and that’s all he needs.  From that kernel, he begins to write, hoping, trusting, that said kernel will sprout and duplicate, creating a garden of seeds, which will then flower and bloom.  So, perhaps, you do indeed begin your story, not knowing where it will lead . . .

wingit

 

As author William Saroyan once said, “I don’t have a name and I don’t have a plot.  I have the typewriter and I have white paper and I have me, and that should add up to a novel.”

Or, perhaps you’re a dedicated planner and outliner, and you set out to craft detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines.  You think of the main characters, the supporting characters, the bit characters.  You form a clear picture of the setting, down to the last, intricate detail.  Is the post office on Main Street, Elm Street, or Walnut Way?  You map it out.  “Writing a novel is like traveling the universe on foot,” writer Dennis R. Miller has said.  You want to be prepared for anything.   There are always some surprises, of course, anytime you write creatively.  But with this intense level of planning, you try to minimize these surprises.  You want to know exactly where you are going.

map

 

Or maybe you fall somewhere in between–you plan a general strategy, with a few major plot points as guideposts.  And you may even have a broad idea how the story will end.  But many of the details are left out–you want the comfort of a firm foundation but the freedom to create during the process.  This tends to be my approach.  I cannot seem to begin a novel without some sense of direction in my mind.  Even if I don’t yet know all the twists and turns along the back roads, I at least want to know what state I’m traveling through.

When I started The Eye-Dancers, I knew the first scene would be Mitchell Brant seeing the “ghost girl” again, for the third consecutive night.  I knew the next several chapters would introduce the other main characters of the book and move the plot along at the same time.  I knew the setting where the bulk of the story would take place, and thought I had a reasonable sense of how it would all end (though the ending I initially envisioned turned out a little differently when I actually wrote it).

The thing is, this approach still brings with it a great deal of uncertainty.  Much like the Stephen King method, this requires an abundance of faith.  If you don’t have every detail planned out ahead of time, then the possibility exists that you will get stuck at some point.  In The Eye-Dancers, it was certainly possible that I would have brought Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc through the void and into the variant town of Colbyville, but then, devoid of any further ideas, I would leave them stranded there like astronauts that have crash-landed onto some dim, lifeless asteroid, with no means of repairing their ship and getting back home.  The story may have ground to a complete halt.

asteroids

 

Indeed, what happens, for instance, if you write 207 riveting pages, full of tight narrative description, crackling dialogue, and a well-paced and interesting plot, but then, suddenly, on page 208, you just stare, wide-eyed and horrified, at the blinking cursor on your screen?  You’ve created a top-notch first half–but now what?  The middle section of a novel is often the most daunting aspect to get through.  The lines of the story reach out in all directions, a maze of tangled branches and labyrinths needing, somehow, to be navigated.  You have a good idea how you want the story to end.  But how do you get there from here?

divergingroads

 

Your mind may lock up, holding your creativity hostage.  You may feel panic, regret, frustration.  It took months to write those first 207 pages!  How can it all dry up now?  All that work (and good work, too) going to waste?  You might feel like deleting the file and tossing any printed-out pages into the fireplace.   You might curse the day you ever thought you had a complete story idea.  You might be tempted to give up writing altogether.

But then, then!  An idea comes.  Ah–yes.  That’s how it should go . . . and you begin to peck away again, the clinky, rhythmic noise of your keyboard the sweetest music you’ve heard in days.  You get the flow back, and the crisis is averted.  Of course, the same trouble may arise again two chapters hence, but you dare to take the risk, your dark, bitter musings only minutes ago now awash in your own personal River of Lethe.

worldsbeforeyou

 

You realize that, despite the inherent insecurities, there is nothing that can compare to the art of creating, of letting the words and sentences pour through you, of feeling the sense of accomplishment as the bones of your story take on flesh and cartilage and sinew.  A wide chasm still separates you from story’s end–but you don’t look down into the dark, bottomless abyss.  You choose to look ahead, thinking of the possibilities, the wonders, the discoveries yet to be made.

The world is out there, just beyond your doorstep.

strange95

 

You just need to make the leap.

jump

 

“Jump,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”

wings

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: