I write for the same reason I read: to free fall into a story and live in that world for a while. My novels begin in tiny glimmers—of character, story, scene. When those pieces surface in me, I feel them, not with my mind, but in the body. They have a feverish intensity—a dreamlike immediacy—they feel alive. And when a story comes to me that way, I begin to write into it longhand to see how it evolves. I toss that old rule Write what you know, and I write into what moves me, what I am impelled by. I’ll fill a notebook, sometimes two, and if that burn persists, if those bits of story are still zipping around like liquid silver in my veins or falling through me while I am out for a run with the dog, or washing the dishes, or down on the beach with my kids; if they continue to snap me awake at 3 a.m., if the story has that kind of life, even if I can’t see—with my daylight mind—how it will all come together or where it will go, if I continue to feel it that way, in the body, I know it’s a piece I am meant to write.
There is freedom in the first thought of a story, but as you begin to transcribe that vision from your head to the page, the incarnation of it starts to change. And the challenge then becomes not to pin down the original vision word for word, but to evoke the spirit of it, to unpack the essence of a fictional piece and give it room to breathe, let it stay somewhat mutable. You might have a rough outline, a synopsis even, but when you can let your mind stay open to a twist in the story you have not yet uncovered, when you can let yourself be driven by what you do not yet know, the story often turns and deepens in unexpected, revelatory ways.
In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Booker prize winning novelist John Banville talks about how, as a younger writer, he used to feel he needed to control every technical aspect of a book, its plot, structure, language, and style. After 19 novels, and at 66 years old, he says that he is “at last beginning to learn how to write, after all these years, and I can let the writing mind dream.”
So what does that mean—to let the writing mind dream? That the key is not to maintain control but to let go of it, to drop the adult mind, the hard-and-fast demands of the intellect, and meet the world as you once did as a child—observing, listening, feeling without thinking—with the openness of living in the moment, even if that moment is a fragment of artistic imagination. Which is not to say that you become a thrown-down doormat to the Muse, but that you do allow for a certain freedom of a character to move around on the page. Sometimes a character will do what you have mapped for them. But sometimes they will pull to do something else, and it can be a character’s flaw—what is dark, inescapable, and painfully human—that infuses real life into a story. A character’s flaw—what Aristotle called Hamartia—is often the most intriguing aspect of them; it impacts their fate; it is the point where what is paradoxical, seemingly irreconcilable—what is weakest and most violent and most beautiful—about them can intersect.
In my third novel, Game of Secrets, one of the most powerful characters for me was a fourteen-year-old boy, Huck. I saw him first as a boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a stolen car, heat in his hands on the wheel thinking about a girl. The novel actually started right there, and I fell into the story through that scene. Huck is not the main character of Game of Secrets, but he impacts the lives of the three women the novel revolves around, and for me as a writer, Huck was a galvanizing force. Even as a boy, he has that James Dean kind of doom about him, but what I did not foresee is that he would grow up to be a man whose views and past stand for things that are easy to dismiss or disdain. The main character of the novel, Marne, despises Huck as an adult, his judgments, his insularity, and it broke my heart a bit to realize that this was the dead-end state where he’d wind up. I didn’t see that coming. I wanted more for him. When Huck first came to me, he was like fire underground, and I wanted him to get out from underneath it all and to render out of a raw, at times brutal inheritance, something beautiful, something free. For three years as I wrote this novel, that hope drove me. Even as I began to learn things about Huck I wished I didn’t know, I couldn’t quite outrun that fierce and simple desire he felt once as that boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, that hunger in him not just for that girl, but for the dream of a different life she stood for.
Margaret Atwood once wrote: “there is only one real question to be asked of any work: Is it alive or dead?” As a writer, I eschew hard-and-fast rules, but this quote from Atwood is as close to an adage as I hold.
When I teach, I tell my students:
Write. Trust your own voice, your own instincts. Learn your own process. Write. Learn what works for you and trust in that. Writing is a discipline. No doubt. It takes persistence, hard work, and drive. It is about working and reworking a passage, a page, or the arc of a story until it breathes. There is a learned ruthlessness that writing demands, when you can go back through a manuscript and pare out what you love—strip even those lines you most long to keep—it gives what remains a kind of luminous intensity. And there is also that other ineffable, but deeply essential aspect of the process: what is mystical, Muse-given—the obsession, the inspiration, even the doubt—all of which to my mind are only different turns of the same coin.
As a writer, I write for that quality of ‘life’ in a work, and as a reader, I read for it. The stories I love most are those that never fail to change me in some slight, vital way with each re-reading. I have a shelf in my office of books I will return to: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, Edna O’Brien’s Wild Decembers, and Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata whose rendering of a failing love glints with ulterior life—heartbreaking, damning, yet written with such compassion, we are moved. I admire these books for a million reasons, but I also get impatient with straightforward linear narratives, where a rigid adherence to form can stamp out the life of a work. The books I list above are highly structured, but not in a traditional, linear way, and the structure that they do have, whether fractured or mosaic, is always subservient to the voice of the story. As a result, it’s the life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the narrative, transcends the intellect, and is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way.
In fiction, the kind of truth we are after is a living truth—parallel, elusive—not a story as it happened, but as it could have happened–a story that kicks open windows in our brains and changes how we see, what we feel, what we think, what we believe—drawing us to the edge of revelation, not only in narrative but in our own lives.
Second image from The Project Twins’ Picture Dictionary.