Wednesday, September 1, 2021

When Writing a Novel, Ditch the Plan and Embrace Uncertainty

 From LitHub:

A brilliant writer friend of mine said to me that writing a novel isn’t an efficient process and people want the efficient. Efficiency, rationalism, progress, all perfectly decent ideas that also call to mind the American highway-building madness of the 1950s, for instance, or the current financial paradigm of ceaseless and predictable growth, and which, left to overtake the novel-writing process, can obscure or squeeze out altogether what is mysterious and irrational, the invisible presence that makes everything in fiction tick. More than the heart—the thing (or, more precisely, the non-thing) that makes the heart beat. A novel, if the writer really means it, is a process in which the writer emerges at the other side having gone through something, and even deeply changed. If a writer isn’t willing to be changed by the work, I might wonder why do it.

In writing workshops, whether I’ve been there as a participant or the teacher, I see writers who want the formula or the secret (but not the true secret, not the mysterious, irrational one). They often want the ten-step list, the actionable plan with concrete goals, a sense of progress and a pattern of coloured sticky-notes. These are fine things, by the way, and I myself am an inveterate list-maker with a hidden closet of index cards and navy gel pens. But this is just some scaffolding, a bit of staging for the real show, which is the grand encounter with uncertainty that is writing fiction, or writing anything at all. Or simply living.

At the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, there was much talk of the wild animals who came to check out previously occupied human spaces, and maybe something about how unattuned we are with the natural world caused people to regard this as both amusing and unsettling—a symbol of the uncertainty in which we’ve been bathing. I live in a semi-rural town, with scrappy woods all around and lots of animals: roving gangs of wild turkeys, deer, foxes, coyotes and a type of weasel called a fisher that locals blame for screaming during summer nights like someone being murdered (try listening to that when you feel uncertain). (Read more.)


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