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Share-It Saturday: The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends

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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Novelists tend to fall into two camps. Some authors love their outlines—they plot and plan and schematize and think their way through problems. John Irving is one example; he spends months outlining his novels in advance, and when he puts pen to paper, he knows exactly what will happen.

Other authors, meanwhile, feel their way through. When they sit down at the desk, anything can happen: They lose themselves in the dark on purpose, and follow the light of strangeness and surprise. Flannery O’ Connor, whose stories revealed their structure over the course of many drafts, worked this way.

The latter approach can sound odd, even shamanistic. What do novelists mean when they say things like my character showed me the way? But my conversation with Andre Dubus III, whose new book Dirty Love is out this week, addressed the challenges and joys of writing without pre-determination. We discussed what it means to write into the unknown, how to do it, and why writers should.

Dirty Love contains four linked novellas about love and betrayal in a coastal town. In the first story, a cuckolded man stalks his wife with a video camera; in the last, a young woman’s world is shattered when a sexually explicit image of her surfaces online. Dubus is the author of books including The House of Sand and Fog (a finalist for the National Book Award), The Garden of Last Days, and Townie. He talked to me by phone from his house north of Boston.

Andre Dubus III: Years ago, I read a book called Letters to a Fiction Writer, which asked about 20 established writers to send their best advice out into the world. There were a lot of heavy hitters in there offering truly wise and helpful advice. But the one that’s stayed with me over the years, from Richard Bausch, has become a sort of mantra for me:

Do not think, dream.

We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is. As a writing teacher, if I say nothing else to my students, it’s this.

Here’s the distinction. There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it. You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it. You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.” There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful. I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be. You can hear the false note in this kind of writing.

This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something. When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious. I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically. I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road. It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.

But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.

So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening. What happens then is, you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about. Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen, or don’t understand. But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart.

OK, I know:  It’s one thing to quote Bausch. But what does it fucking mean, “dream with language?” I think this is what happens. Habits of writing can be learned. We can to choose concrete language over overly abstract language. We can learn to use active verbs instead of passive verbs. To bring in at least three of the five senses to activate a scene. All these things we can be taught, or learn on our own from reading. These are all part of your toolbox—but that toolbox will always remain locked if the writer is not genuinely curious about what he or she is writing about. To me, that is the essential ingredient. Late in his life, Faulkner was asked what quality a writer most needs—and he said not talent, but curiosity. I know the exact quote by heart: “Insight, curiosity, to wonder, to mull and to muse why it is that man what does what he does. And if you have that, talent makes no difference, whether you’ve got it or not.”

So you can dream by being curious—by being curious enough to report back what’s in front of your narrative eye. I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights—” but you keep going until you get there. I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white? What’s on the side of the road? Is there vegetation? What kind? What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights. That’s how the architecture is revealed.You must also be curious not just about perceptions, and the physical word, but about the character. “Why man does what he does,” as Faulkner said. Or another great line from Flannery O’ Connor: “The writer must write not aboutcharacter, but with character.” Or, Eudora Welty, who the artistic act she holds most high is entering the private skin of another. Writing with character. It’s every eight or nine or 10 days with me when most of the entire writing sessions feels I’m just moving with the character, a strange observer in their chest some way as they go about their business. I think it’s why a lot of writers write, is for that feeling. It’s certainly why I write.

I write longhand pencil, and every other word’s crossed out. The words I strike are not usually because they’re clichéd, or not good words, but because they don’t reflect the character’s essential truth. Through a series of micro-choices made as I’m writing a sentence, I’m trying to find the true word, the word that reflects the character’s truth. Is that the smell she’s smelling in that bar? Is that the light she’s seeing in her car, with the snow falling? Is that really what she hears, and thinks and feels?

Now, I have days when this doesn’t happen. I would say most days. I would say I feel I’ve had good writing session every nine or 10 days. That’s not to say I don’t have any contact on those other eight or nine days—it’s like dancing with somebody in the dark, you catch glimmers of her face in the shadow light. But other days, the moon’s right on her—and those are the days I write for.

I’m one of these writers who rewrites pretty constantly all the time. If there’s any moment that feels even slightly false I cannot continue. Even if a character says one thing I don’t quite believe, or has an association I don’t quite buy, I cannot continue. I’ve learned the hard way that this novel is a 12-story building. If there’s a faulty brick on the fourth floor, that means that the eight stories I’ve put on top have to go. So I constantly am a vicious, merciless rewriter when it comes to truth.

Now, dreaming your way through a story is very useful at first—for the first draft, maybe the first two drafts. But once the revision process begins, you’ve got to change your approach. Bausch would be the first to say that once you dream it through, try to look at the result the way a doctor looks at an X-ray. You’ve got to be terribly smart about it. In the secondary period, you get more rational and logical about what you’ve dreamt—while still cooperating with the deeper truths of what you’ve made.So once I have a beginning, middle, and end, I walk away from it for at least six months and don’t look at it. At least six months. To revise means “to see again”—well, how can you see again when you just looked at it 10 days ago? No. Have two seasons go between you. And then when you pick it up and read it, you actually forget some of what happens in the story. You forget how hard it was to write those 12 pages. And you become tougher on it. You see closer to what the reader is going to see.

What I look for at this point is dramatic tension, forward movement, and, frankly, beauty. I try to make it as truly itself as possible. And that’s when the major plotting comes in—plot, not as a noun but as a verb—the ordering of events and material. I get really merciless. I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone. A merciless reviser is in a much better position to write a really good book than one who hasn’t got the stomach for it. That may be the distinction between what makes a really good book and a great book.

It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing—they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.

Here’s how it happens for me. The first thing I do is go to my office, which is a nearly soundproof cave in my basement. (But I also have to write in hotels and on planes and shit all the time, so.) The big ritual is that I read a few poems. I don’t write poetry, but I read poetry daily. I must have 500 volumes of poetry. And I read it just to, you know, sprinkle flower petals on the bed and put a little Luther Vandross on. To get me in the mood. And it brings me down into a pretty good meditative state.

I write longhand pencil every day in composition notebooks, even on my birthday (today’s my birthday, and I think I had a good session). I read some poems, then I put on some headphones and play some music. While I’m listening to music I’m just typing the previous day’s handwritten work into the computer. Then I turn off the music, rewrite some sentences—I don’t go nuts, just making sure I believe everything that happened. I know that later I’ll be rewriting constantly, and I don’t want to go to that rational, critical, logical part of my brain too much. That can get in the way of the dream state.Then I go back, get rid of the machine, and I sharpen my Blackwing 602 Palomino pencil, and I just go at it. It’s a ritual. It’s O’Connor: “There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare.” And she goes on to say that writing is waiting. And I think what she means is, you’re not waiting for inspiration. You’re staring or waiting for the image or the moment or the smell or the sound to emerge—and when you start to write it, just trust me that things happen.

I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there. And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing. There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination. Free fall into it. See where it brings you to. It’s scary, it’s unorganized, and you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some major fucking rewriting—and maybe cut two years of work.

I know, putting up this kind of uncertainty is very difficult. We bring ourselves into these rooms. We bring all of our hopes, all of our longings, all of our shadows. What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us. You’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Young people now are so cautious. Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house. Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank. These crazy, careful people! You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years. Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.

Sometimes the fear is, I won’t publish the novel by the time I’m 30. Or my mother’s sick—she’ll never see me publish a book. Or all my friends have published, when am I going to publish? All of these demons, we bring to the desk. Often, subconsciously buried. And I think it’s really important to be clear on what’s at stake for you.

I think one of the downsides of MFA programs is they make people really career-conscious. Fuck career. Let me tell you something: I’m so grateful to have had a publishing career so far. It’s how I make most of my living. It’s been an incredible blessing. It’s helped me take better care of my family than I could have ever thought possible. But I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people. It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour—though those are good problems to have. It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.


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JOE FASSLER is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series. He also covers the politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food Economy.

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