Don’t ask, don’t tell

Note: there will be no post next Friday, 12/30.  Check back 1/6/12. Happy New Year!

The question comes up at parties, over dinner with new friends, next to a chatty traveler on an airplane. The inevitable ice-breaker— What do you do?—has made me want to say “Taxidermy” or “marine research,” to make up an alternate identity and avoid the question that always follows when I say that I write.  Write about what?

I once made the mistake, at a luncheon of academic types, of saying “childhood” and “loss.”  I cringe now, remembering.  Not that fiction can’t be about big themes, childhood and loss among them, but for a writer to define her own work that way?  I might as well have said Life or Truth or Beauty.  Chalk it up to grad school; I was drafting my aesthetic statement, a required part of every master’s thesis, at the time.

But now, if someone asks me what my fiction is about, after I try to change the subject, I describe the characters instead. A girl in 1969 who doesn’t want the astronauts to land on the moon.  A woman getting crank calls from her married lover’s daughter.  A drug addict who follows a stranger on the street, thinking that she’s his sister.  A woman who kidnaps her own son and moves to a new town to start over.

It’s much, much easier to do this, by the way, for work that is finished and much harder for work that is still being formed.  In fact, I think it’s even dangerous to define work that’s still being formed, sort of akin to the Jewish custom of not bringing any new baby furniture into the house until the baby is born healthy and safe.

Recently I was asked why my novel features a kidnapping.  Had I thought about what that might say about my own life?  No, nor did I particularly want to.  Talking about my work jinxes the creative process, silences the intuition.  Thinking too much about what my fiction means makes me squirm.  Once it’s written and looking for a home, then I’ll have to formulate a marketing pitch, but not yet.

One of my happiest moments as a writer happened during a workshop.  In the story, “Away from Trees,” a young archeologist who is mourning her brother’s sudden death visits a ghost town in the Eastern Sierra, where the town’s only building made of brick is the court house.  Her dead brother’s name is Court.  I did not plan that connection. I didn’t even realize it, until someone said, “I love the way the only building not falling apart is the courthouse.  Such an important symbol the writer planted.”  But I hadn’t–at least not consciously.

Wallace Stegner wrote that the guts of any significant fiction is an anguished question.  If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need to write the thing in the first place.  And yet, of course, once we’ve started writing any piece of fiction, we have some idea of what it’s “about.”  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, false.  But I’m writing today to celebrate the not knowing, the questions, the anguish.

I’m working on the umpteenth revision of a novel.  I’ve kept every earlier draft, so many I can’t even keep track of which came when.  (How hard could it have been to have jotted a date on the first page? But I didn’t.)  I’ve had long periods away—but I’ve always come back, I suppose, because that inchoate question still hounds me.  As a reviser, I tend to overvalue the small detail, the turn of phrase, the re-arranged syntax.  This time, I’m looking more at the larger issues:  What is this scene accomplishing?  What’s changed in these ten pages?  Where’s the urgency here?

What about you?  Does asking the anguished question help or hinder?  What has jinxed or helped your intuition?

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