To plan or not to plan?
I'm hoping you could say something regarding the "prep work" of writing a story.
In the same way that one might trim and slice vegetables in preparing to cook, might a writer of stories be advised to spend some time with the ingredients--characters, setting, etc.--before setting about "cooking" the story?
Steven Millhauser has spoken about this, as has Edith Wharton.
Millhauser: "When I was in my early twenties, I began writing as soon as I had a single image and a vague sense of what I wanted to do.... I now don't begin until I know a great deal about the still unwritten story, though I don't know and don't want to know everything. To put it another way: the business of knowing only a little, and then knowing a little more, and a little more, now takes place almost entirely in my mind, as well as in notebook jottings, as I slowly prepare for the act of writing." (Transatlantica 1, 2011)
Wharton: "[T]he impression of vividness, of presentness, in the affair narrated, has to be sought, and made sure of beforehand, by that careful artifice, which is the real carelessness of art. The short-story writer must not only know from what angle to present his anecdote if it is to give out all its fires, but must understand just why that particular angle and no other is the right one. He must therefore have turned his subject over and over, walked around it, so to speak...before it can be offered to the reader as a natural unembellished fragment of experience, detached like a ripe fruit from the tree." ("Telling a Short Story,” from The Writing of Fiction, 1925)
My own feeling lately, as I embark on a new story, is that I'm wanting to commune with my characters and my setting during my writing sessions rather than immediately diving into the action. Feedback I've gotten on previous stories, and my own process thus far, has led me to this new approach to my work.
I'm curious on your take.
Thanks for this, and for those powerful quotes.
So, let me say once again that a good answer to almost any question about writing is: “Right, exactly, that IS the question.”
Meaning, of course: each of us will end up coming up with an answer particular to ourselves, and the very process of coming up with that answer, over the years, through trial-and-error, is/ends up being, “our method.”
Each of us will do certain things before starting a story, ranging from “I do nothing – I just leap in” to “I work through the story entirely in my mind before putting down a word of it.”
And the additional pisser is that we may find our approach changing over time, even from story to story.
Joyce Carol Oates once came to give a talk to our students at Syracuse and she said that, before she started a novel, she spent day after day on the treadmill, thinking through it – developing the story, getting to know the characters, working through options. At some point, when she was ready, she just sat down and wrote it. But the sense I got was that she’d been thinking about the book for weeks or months before beginning.
My approach, as you know, is very different; I try to know as little as possible before starting, feeling that the thrill of discovery will be apparent in the prose. I’ve also found that knowing too much in advance is dangerous for me, because the kinds of things I tend to know in advance are dull and predictable. (Other people may be more capable than I am of imagining a complex, open, evolving moral universe.)
But this isn’t always my approach. With some stories, I’ve worked more like Wharton and Millhauser; I mull the thing over in my mind until a door appears, and that door often comes in the form of a voice, or sometimes a very simple sequence of events. (This was true both for the story “Tenth of December” and the novel Lincoln in the Bardo.) I don’t know everything, at that point, but I have a general plan of attack.
Here's the thing: it really is up to you. No one can tell you the right approach. There are plenty of people, including, sometimes, me, willing to tell you, but that, ultimately, is all fog.
You really are (thrillingly!) alone in the middle of a vast desert, trying to find a way into the cooler, wetter country, and little messages keep drifting down from above (“Show, don’t tell!” “Never start with an outline!” “Write what you know, except when it seems better otherwise!”) but, in the end, you have to walk right past all of those, as you try to follow your instincts to what works for you.
So, with this question or, really, any writing question…how do we know? How do we know that Approach A actually is better for us than Approach B? As we seek the answer to some theoretical writing question, how will we know when we’ve found our answer?
But, of course, even the answer to that question is conditional and personal. That is: each of us will have a different method of knowing what to do about a given writing dilemma.
So, what is the purpose of all of this discussion about writing?
I’ve come to believe that there are two: 1) It somehow helps us to hear that other people are having the same issues as we are, in the same way that, when three auto mechanics arrive on the scene and, though they can’t quite agree on a fix, they all agree that the transmission is, in this case, “a thing.” (There’s comfort in that). 2) The ultimate futility of trying to conceptually pronounce on these hazy matters of art eventually drives us up into a higher way of thinking, an intuitive way, in which we give up on “deciding” and “pronouncing” definitively and commit to, every day, deciding and pronouncing in a new way, and only in the form of the changes we are making in the text at hand – in a sense, saying “Goodbye to all that,” the “that” being the rational, the linear, the “always true,” the “this is how I always do it.”
That is a big step.
It’s kind of like this: there’s a beautiful house, full of many rooms. Let’s call this the House of Rational Knowledge. We go in there and, in every room are dozens of published authors talking craft. And there’s a lot of value in there. We hear things that sound authoritative and clever, things that resonate with our actual experience. So, we linger. This seems like the place to be, if we want to get better. But every now and then (as in Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” we “wander off by ourselves,” out the back door of that house, and up on the hill is an even bigger, more wondrous house: the House of Intuition and Doing.
That house, wow: it’s got more rooms and they are vast and empty and we have the place all to ourselves. In there, it’s total silence; it’s all up to us.
And every time someone wanders out of the lower house, a new House of Intuition and Doing appears, custom-built for that person to walk into and explore.
That’s where we really want to spend our time and our artistic energy: getting to know our version of that house.
The above quotes by Millhauser and Wharton might be understood as what they had to say when, having spent many thousands of hours in that House, they stepped out on to a porch to describe to us what it was like in there.
But here’s the thing: we don’t have to say a word about what we find in there. That is, talking about what we’ve found won’t make it any truer. It’s fun to talk about, for sure. There may be some value in articulating what we find – maybe it sort of “cinches in” that knowledge, makes it more available to us next time – but I’m not sure about that. (It also might be that talking about it not only “cinches it in” but “cements it in” – converts it into dogma, which can be a kind of trap when the next story demands a new approach).
Writing is neurological work, ultimately: the intersection of a particular mind with a particular experience. Each writer’s mind runs in a certain way; it favors certain things, reasons like this or like that, is drawn, inexplicably, to certain topics, lights up linguistically for certain reasons. The writer’s particular experience has presented her with specific hardships, proclivities, delights, and struggles. It also creates, through the process of the work, certain traps that that very same mind needs to find a way to escape.
So, it shouldn’t surprise us that this is a lonely, highly personal path that we’re on.
The trick, I think, is to train ourselves to find this exciting rather than daunting, so that, when, exhausted by trying to rationally figure things out, we step out the back door of that House of Rational Knowledge, and when we spot that customized House of Intuition and Doing, we feel happy and energized, and there’s a spring in our step as we sprint up the hill, heading home.