posted by Kathy Waller
I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering. ~ Robert Frost
I have never started a post yet whose end I knew. Or a story. Or a novel. Or an essay. Or . . . ~ Kathy Waller
I am a late bloomer. Unlike Stephen King, I did not start writing stories as soon as I learned to spell.
I wanted to, but I didn’t understand how writers work. I thought I had to know everything when I wrote the first word. Writers, I assumed, created stories and books in their heads and then put them on paper. I didn’t know any writers, but I knew my mother, who made up stories to tell at nap time.
The most memorable of her creations was the story of two little moose named Mervyn and LeRoy, who live in the Teton Mountains. One cool spring day they disobey their mothers by trekking down their mountain, hanging their clothes on a bush, and taking a dip in the lake. While they are swimming, a grizzly bear steals their clothes.
While hunting for their clothes, Mervyn and LeRoy become so cold that by the time their mothers find them hiding amongst the foliage, their teeth are chattering and they’ve turned blue all over. Their mothers take them home and put them to bed with hot bricks to warm their feet. But they both develop pea-neumonia and have to take bad-tasting medicine and stay in bed for weeks and weeks and weeks.
They are very sorry they disobeyed their mothers and promise they will never, ever do that again. And they never, ever do.
The first time I heard this story, it was obvious to me that my mother knew the end almost before she’d pinned down the “Once upon a time.” Mervyn and LeRoy reinforced my impression of writers as semi-magicians.
I retained the Writer-As-Steno-to-the-Muse idea for longer than I care to admit. Through two degrees in English and years of teaching, to be exact.
I knew that American novelist William Dean Howells said he began by creating characters, presenting them with a conflict, and letting them work out a solution. I knew the plot of Huckleberry Finn is flawed because Mark Twain allowed Jim and Huck to pass Cairo and travel farther and farther into slave territory and away from the possibility of Jim’s freedom. I accepted that both Howells and Twain exercised control over their material. I wrote page after page of literary criticism in which I analyzed novels and explained how the writers had constructed their works.
But I also knew that Helen Hunt Jackson said of her novel Ramona, “. . . one morning, . . . before I was wide awake, the whole plot flashed into my mind . . . in less than five minutes, as if someone spoke it.”*
I wrote two hundred pages explaining how Jackson carefully crafted the story of the lovely Native American woman. But subconsciously I believed that real writers, Howells and Twain included, began with that flash.
It was ten years before I considered I might be wrong and risked writing some fiction of my own. I set out with a first line–School is ruining my life.–and went from there. There was no flash. Five thousand words later, I wrote The End. A couple of months later, I wrote another first line–My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks.–and another five thousand words, and another The End. Again there was no flash. Both stories won regional fiction contests. I wrote a piece of flash fiction from a photograph prompt. No flash. It was published in the online magazine Mysterical-E.
I wrote another first line–The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the lemon meringue pie, I took the bowl away from her and called a family conference.–and, again with no specific plan, continued writing. This time, though, Karleen called time. Last year, when my critique group, Austin Mystery Writers, decided to put together an anthology of short stories, I pulled out the fragment and finished it.
I was pleased. The members of my critique group were not. “It falls flat,” they said. “You promised the reader something but didn’t deliver.” They made suggestions. One of them was so obvious I wondered how I’d missed it. I made changes, killed darlings, added a couple of thousand words, and concluded in a way that satisfied my peers.
It’s been a long road from Writer-As-Steno-to-the-Muse to where I am now. What have I learned along the way? What do I know about writing that I didn’t know before?
From experience, I’ve learned that a writer doesn’t necessarily know the whole story before writing it. I know that writing is thinking and discovering. I know that a good critique group is invaluable for pointing out what doesn’t work and helping brainstorm what will. I know that once I begin, words will flow, and I will feel wonderful. I know that I have told people I love writing, when I really meant I love the flow.
I know that E. L. Doctorow said writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I know that’s fine for E. L. Doctorow and others of his ilk. But as I consider my next project, I still think I should already have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I know all I have is a first line, an empty head, an woozy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I don’t know how I’ll get from the first line to the end. I don’t know that I’ll get to the end.
I don’t know how creativity works. I do know it entails numerous games of Poppit and Bookworm and sometimes lots of chocolate.
I know that lot of writers drink more than they should. I know I intend to stick with chocolate.
I know I’ve been working on this post all night, that it’s twice as long as it should be, and that I don’t have time to revise and improve it. I also don’t know how it will end.
But before it ends, I’ll tell you a mystery: One night last fall, I went to bed, turned out the light, closed my eyes, and had settled down for a good night’s sleep when a plot flashed into my mind–three points–beginning, middle, and end. It was perfect, so right that I wondered whether I had read it somewhere or seen it on Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone. But I hadn’t. It was mine, my own miracle, a whisper from the Muse, freely given, no reciprocation expected.
The next morning I began writing. What was originally conceived as flash fiction grew to over thirty pages. From start to finish, the process, including peer critiques, the services of an independent editor, revision, proofreading, time-outs, cat holding, and the occasional game of Poppit, took about four months. I added flesh, but the three-point skeleton I applied it to remained straight and strong.
It was a heady experience.
And it gives me hope that someday there’ll be a flash, and another plot will come, whole, as if someone spoke it.
*Evelyn I. Banning, Helen Hunt Jackson, (New York: Vanguard Press, 1973), p. 198. Not documented.
Out of consideration for my readers, I have not included links to Poppit or Bookworm. They are addictive. No one needs that kind of trouble.
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