Probably everyone is starting to experience this: the thinking part of writing a story takes much longer than the actual putting of words on the page. So maybe the point for our class isn’t just to look at the words on the page – and especially the point isn’t to tell their author what to write – but rather we should try to talk about the thinking that goes on underneath the story. The invisible part of the story, the underwater part of the iceberg, the hull of the ship below the waterline, the action backstage.
My experience of writing is like this: I usually write first draft fiction straight ahead, starting at the beginning of the story and proceeding forward, not jumping ahead in the sense of skipping scenes that I know need to occur. The time of writing consists mostly of waiting, and what I’m waiting for is the next thing that’s going to happen.
When I say this, I mean “happen” in an unusual way. I don’t just mean the next step in the plot of the story, the next action some character takes. What I mean includes that, but is not restricted to that. I’m waiting for the next thing the reader is going to experience, and I’ll try to say what I mean by that in three different ways:
Everything you write in the story itself is an experience for the reader.
Every word that goes down on the story’s page is a language event.
In the world of story, narrating is an event.
At this point, we get to the heart of the act of writing fiction, according to me. Everything about fiction comes back to the act of narration. There is no story until the story is told. The telling is a performance. The performing happens through words, word by word, sentence by sentence. Language is all you have to work with; the only gestures you can make are language-gestures. Think of a radio play: no images, no set, no lights, no stage, no anything but words that fall into the listener’s mind. That’s what you’re working with. Yet these words are able to create a dazzling show in the theater of the mind.
The first person you create this show for is yourself. Now, I don’t pretend to know how everyone’s imagination works, so I will just write from my own experience. There is a huge difference between the imagined world that has not yet found its way into words, and the imagined world that is created as you write. The written one suddenly solidifies and becomes definite. Before, it was potential, it was still radically open; now it is a specific something because it has been written. Every word is a choice, a commitment. Shared language creates our consensus reality; this is the condition of our existence as human beings. But in the first stages of writing, when you choose the words you are sharing language with only yourself. You are alone with the work. You are your own reader. You are the listener to the radio play. You write the word; the word reverberates in your mind; it brings forth a world. Your world, a world where you are the Creator. You are the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, yet you are also the amazed audience that swallows the illusion whole. What you see there feeds back into the act of writing. You don’t create the world once, or in seven days; you create it every time you sit down to write. It is always beginning – right up until the end.
For me, the crucial thinking happens during the act of writing the draft, in long or short periods of time between sentences that actually get written. This thinking is mostly unconscious. The best work, the heavy imaginative lifting, the strategic thinking about the whole shape of a story that doesn’t yet exist, is done by the unconscious. Most of it is not analytical putting-parts-together thinking. That’s why the subjective experience is one of waiting. There is a feeling that “nothing is happening” because much of what’s happening is not conscious and does not consist of moving language around logically in your mind. (This, by the way, is a crucial way that creative work is different from the analytical efforts that are much more typical of life in school.)
I find that no matter how much analytical thinking I do about my story before I start writing, there is still something new, something unexpected, some discovery that occurs in the act of writing. And if there isn’t that newness, the writing isn’t good enough. The encounter with writing must be one in which you don’t know something – no matter how much you do know. I cannot over-emphasize this. You want to sit down to write not knowing everything. That situation is what brings out the best in an artist. Of course, it is moderately nerve-racking, and that’s something you have to get used to. As you keep doing this, you come to trust that it’s okay to not know and write anyway.
The pressure of the unwritten next sentence is very important. The next sentence is trying to come into being out of the formless and unknowable noplace where everything that has not yet been created waits. It is coming into being through you. There is a pressure associated with that. You are at the forward edge of the story’s emergence from nothing into something. I believe that’s where the best thinking happens.
You can download this as a Word document here: How to think story