The Blind-Faith Method.

December 24, 2010 § 12 Comments

There are plenty of tips on how to write good fiction, as if story were a kit waiting to be assembled.

Many of those tips are helpful, but they belong in the tool box of the critic/editor that resides in the brain of every writer.  Rational thought and time-tested technique come in handy when tinkering with a wobbly first draft.

At least for me, the first draft must be embarked upon with the faith of Icarus trusting a pair of wings made of feathers and wax.

My journey begins with a glimmer.  That glimmer is my first hint that swimming beneath the surface of my random day-to-day thoughts is a story trying to catch my attention.  It may have waited quietly for decades before making itself known.

When I was perhaps ten my mother said, “Have you ever noticed that with identical twins one looks like the original and the other a copy?” What made this throw-away comment suddenly interesting nearly fifty years later was an additional thought.  What would it be like if you knew you were the copy?  And what if your twin, the original, had died?

Knowing only that much about a novel that would ultimately reach 72,000 words I simply listened, and the voice of the surviving twin began to tell this story:

Listen…  Every graduating high school class has its version of this story.

It’s prom night.  There’s an accident. A blue carnation lies crushed—a promising life cut short.    

Even if your class doesn’t have a genuine prom night disaster, something will go wrong, and over time, what started as a fender-bender will be enlarged by rumor, everyone claiming some piece of it:

“That guy who got wasted and wrecked his car?  He was in my Algebra II class.” 

“Yeah?  Well I knew his girlfriend.  I heard she was with him when it happened.” 

Tragedy must be a necessary part of the passage from high school to Life.  Somebody dies.  Somebody walks away—every class has its ballad.     

This one is mine. I’m the guy who walked away. 

I was surprised by Ron Hansen’s flippant tone, but little by little he revealed the hurt he was hiding with bravado.  I let him tell his story.

Michelangelo claimed to chip away stone to reveal figures that had always been there.  My stories feel the same way, as if they too have always been there,  inhabiting my unconscious, waiting for release.

My current work-in-progress began with a mental image of a fedora (the kind favored by Bogie and Eliot Ness).  I saw it sitting forgotten on the top shelf of a closet.  I wondered what might happen when the hat was found.

The hat-finder (his term, not mine) turned out to be Cody Floyd, a boy one week shy of his seventh birthday:

He couldn’t really see to the back of the shelf, but holding onto the rod with one hand he reached as far as he could and…his fingertips touched something velvety. 

Slowly, he slid it forward.

“Cool,” he breathed.  The hat was the same color as Elvis, the mouse that had been the class pet when he was in kindergarten.  It felt about the same too, except it didn’t quiver.  He picked the hat up and put it on.

The hat slid down fast and the world disappeared.  The hat’s lining felt silky against his ears.  It smelled like a cough drop.  Cody kind of liked the sudden darkness.   

Like the narrator in Dr. Seuss’s, “To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” I expand on the ordinary. I give it stature.  A kid who finds his uncle’s hat becomes a hero wearing the possibly magical hat of an uncle who has vanished.  I say “possibly magical” because I write realistic fiction.  The reader will never know if Cody has acquired real magic or whether a few well-placed coincidences fanned by the rumors that riffle through the kid-community of his neighborhood give him influence rarely wielded by a seven year old (minus one week).

Describing a persistent mental image, like a hat on a shelf, is very much a part of my process–and the image is not always static.  Sometimes I feel like the sole eyewitness to an event that is vividly unfolding in my head.  All I do is report what I see.

As I work on a story, the world falls all over itself to contribute.  It seems that while writing a novel—at the least a year long process—everything that happens in the real world is applicable to my story.  In my book “The Big Nothing” I had an eighth grade narrator whose older brother was in Basic Training.  While writing the story the war in Iraq began and suddenly the older brother was being deployed, adding a dramatic element I had not anticipated but welcomed.

Because the particular story I am telling becomes the lens through which I see everything, everything is pertinent, and I have no doubt that the real world would generously contribute material to any writer who is open to suggestion.

My characters are not strictly my own creation either.  They grow out of long memory of all the people I have known—all the uncles, cousins, neighbors—and myself.  The characters that resonate with readers are invariably the ones I feel a deep sympathy for.  I am working on a rich thirteen-year-old girl right now and I am having a hard time getting her to breathe.  Until I see past the privilege that governs her life and discover who she really is, it isn’t going to happen.  I can only write my way toward her until I find her.

If my writing “method” appalls you, let me add that I am not knocking an orderly approach to writing, but I can’t do it.  And I’m not unique.  All fiction writers fall somewhere along a continuum that runs from “plan” to “blurt,” and I don’t think the writer gets to choose.

A planner is not a planner because they lack courage.  A blurter is not a blurter because they are disorganized.  A planner finds their story by drawing a map.  A blurter finds theirs by writing it.

Having accepted the fact I am a blurter in the extreme, I have come to trust the stories I tell to reveal themselves as I progress through them.  Like driving through a mountain range, I see each mountain as the last one falls behind.  Having done this many times I no longer panic as I set out for a destination that is largely hidden.

All a prospective new story has to offer in trade for my time is that first glimmer and I’m in the air, trusting wax and feathers to carry me as they always have.

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§ 12 Responses to The Blind-Faith Method.

  • craig reeder says:

    I admire your trust in your own instincts. Go for it!

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  • tgumster says:

    Hooray for blind faith, the heart and soul of writing; my bias is immediately evident. “Writing wrings you useless,” Jean Rhys wrote on one day in one of her notebooks, somewhere between one novel and another. I have never lost the image of her loopy scrawl, softened by time and pencil lead.

    I think she was a blurter but it’s not how writing comes to life, it’s that it comes to life at all, which is a magic all its own. You are so gracious in making that point, Adrian. On behalf of all the “blurters” who are wrung out on a daily basis, thank you.

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    • “Writing wrings you useless,” what a wonderful and accurate phrase. Writing also wrings the world pale by comparison. If only non-writers knew how much fun we are having while we sit in our chairs for hours and hours and hours and hours.

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  • I read your words and I’m back on St. George, sipping luke-warm coffee laced with Splenda and half-n-half, sitting at the community table after dinner and sharing our latest “blurts” – A is for amor …

    I love the way you think … and share!

    Like

  • Judy Ransom says:

    Fiction still eludes me, and I keep asking in awe, “How do people come up with this stuff?” How do you have a hat remind you of a kindergarten pet mouse named Elvis? I am amazed, perplexed, and ever more venerate of the writer of fiction. My mouse hat’s off to you, Adrian!

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  • I worked for a chef who refused to allow me to write down a recepe. He said just keep tasting it and make sure it always tastes good when you’re done. He called this technique creative cooking. I thought he was nuts but followed his lead.
    In writing as in cooking, I have found that sometimes it takes a lot of adding and tasting to make something taste good. Writing is easier than cooking though. In writing you can always take something out … in cooking you have to make it work or throw it out. I hate throwing stuff away.
    My chef buddy’s second technique was called “saving.” He had the unique ability to “save” almost any dish. He would have an idea and throw some stuff into a pot or saute pan. It would sometimes taste horrible. He would work on it until it was good. I couldn’t believe it. I do a lot of “saving” in my writing also.
    My last technique comes from how I have lived my life. My goal has never been to find interesting things to do in life but to make whatever I’m doing interesting.
    I now like to create in the Christian Philosophical tradition – which is to start with “nothing”
    and make it into something.
    The other day I couldn’t think of a good story to write for my weekly column. I said you pretend to be a writer, write something about the first thing that pops into your mind. The first thing that came to mind was an upright piano. I then wrote a 2000 word short story about an upright piano. It took a lot of tasting and a save or two but I came out with something I liked. So there you go. Writing has to be fun, or I’m going to find something else to do that is.

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  • My friend had a Jewish grandmother who was a great cook. Like your friend she never wrote a recipe down. Her advice, once things had been added to the pot was, “You mix it up, and then you judge.” That is exactly how I cook and write. If I know what the flavor of a piece of writing is going to be going in I have no desire to write it. Why bother if I already know how it wll turn out? I write for the surprise, be it good or bad.

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  • Amy Schoch says:

    Adrian, I appreciate all of your posts, and this one especially. I’m not a planner either and experience my writing process as an explorer setting out in a little boat.

    Like

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