Friday, August 21, 2009

Story River: Why We Write in the Dark

Last spring I attended an author's luncheon for my local library. I even helped organize it, which shows how much I love libraries, as fidgety as meetings and committees make me. One of the authors who spoke had won a Pulitzer and taught at a nearby college. She was eloquent and honest, and discussed why it was that, say, Philip Roth has published many books and she has only published two. She talked about teaching and children and life. "Novels grow in the dark," she said, a quote I wrote down and spend some spare moments musing over. When she said, though, that "I have not a regular relationship to the work, but a faithful relationship to the work," the distinction brought immense relief to my own writing life.

I get frustrated, often, with how long my work takes. It can take months for an essay to reach what I feel is completion, years sometimes for a story, perhaps because I am simply more practiced at nonfiction. When the final narrative finally emerges, and still feels whole and smooth even several months later, I know I'm done with it. And wish, repeatedly, that I could have just written it right the first time around. At which point the whole process starts over again with something new.

I carry drafts of essays and stories around with me all the time, as if they were children, or cats waiting to be taken to the vet. Sometimes I read over the first few pages and sigh, wondering how on earth I'm going to fix whatever is wrong with a piece that I know is essentially good. And then I put it back in my bag because I also know, instinctively, that I cannot push a piece, or force it to be done, or inflict endings and scenes it was never meant to have. It has to wait. Maybe it is gestating, or maybe the door to that particular piece is closed for the moment, and I have pay attention to see when it opens again.

I know by now that I am not really in charge of "my" work. The best work does not come from "I," but from some "other," some easy, flowing place where the story runs through like a stream or river or brook, depending on its nature. Maybe that's why it's so hard for a writer to capture it all at once. The story is moving, drifting, changing all the time, not sitting there like a written book ready to be picked up, or even a baby ready to be born.

Or maybe it is like a baby, a complete self at every moment of its life, as is any course of running water, but, also like a river or stream or creek or spring, is never the same being it was a moment before, changing at every instant. And yet, the watercourse or human being, while seeming to change, has a core of being-ness or completeness that all can sense, some unchanging purpose or existence that sits at the center of the joyful and wild ripples of change and life.

This is also true of a story. The attempts to catch it in its flow -- which for me can take years of repeated efforts -- are simply attempts to describe the story-river so completely as to come as close as possible to describing the core of it.

The goal, however, of a writer or human or artist or storyteller is not, in fact, to simply tell the central, unchanging truth, although that is what we feel we are reaching for. The core is not a story. It is simply a word, or a sense: truth, wrong, love, hurt, joy. These words describe the central essence of our works, and we wrap stories around them to help us make sense of them. To help us understand what we already instinctually know. Because every person, writer or reader, has their own river of truth, knowledge, and experience. Behind each of these are truths we all share, but the only way we can reach understanding of how close we are is to describe our rivers -- our stories -- to one another so fully that maybe another will recognize one of ours and say, "Yes, that is a lot like mine, my story."

There is a delicate balance between letting the story come through you (that which is true), and letting the "I," or the ego, manufacture it. With time and practice every writer learns to sense where he or she is writing from. And with time and practice, we learn that satisfaction in our work, "our" creations, come not from us, but from that other place that, like nature itself, gives its gifts freely -- if we're paying attention.

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