Monday, May 10, 2010

Writing in the Dark

Novelists are frequently asked during interviews how much they know about their books before they begin. So it was no surprise when the question was put to Paul Auster and David Grossman last Tuesday night at the International Writers’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’a’nanim in Jerusalem.

But what was perhaps surprising to listeners was the unequivocal answer given by both writers: they know very little of their stories when they start. What’s more, they added, neither of them would want it any other way. What would be the point of writing the story if they knew how it all played out before they began?

This not-knowing approach to fiction writing often mystifies writers new to the craft. How can you grope around so long in the dark? Don’t you need some kind of outline, framework, plan, if only to keep yourself going, or to stay sane or focused? And, most pressingly – a challenge sometimes put forth with a palpable air of irritation –why don’t you work the material through in advance? What is there to gain from this work-by-feel method, which was described by E.L. Doctorow like this: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

As a writer who has long worked in the driving-in-fog mode, I’ve tried to explain to students (and others) why I, and many others, are compelled to produce our fiction this way. Often I talk about the need for discovery, and quote Robert Frost: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Or I say my internal critic is over-active and that if I had to run my story ideas through my head in advance, they’d never get onto the page.

But, ultimately, how the not-knowing approach manifests is difficult to describe. “You change the story and the story changes you,” Grossman said, Auster nodding beside him. Writing is a reciprocal activity; you speak to the story and the story speaks back. You’re engaged in a dynamic relationship, an active dialogue where your in-process manuscript has as much to tell you about what you’re trying to express – to show you and teach you – as you have to tell it.

How does one engage in such a give-and-take, or even become aware that it’s going on? Frequently Grossman used the word “surrender,” suggesting that we need to give ourselves over to the writing process with something approaching faith. One must be willing to lose oneself and give up the quest for control. We may make up our characters, for instance, but we don’t know everything about them. It’s like any couplehood, Grossman said. It takes time to become familiar. Grossman likes to take whatever time is needed to discover intimate details about his characters before he begins: what she likes to eat, how her clothing feels against her skin. Such a slow accretion of intimacy requires patience, effort. And, sometimes, obsession. To get to know one of the characters in his 2008 novel “The Museum of Innocence,” Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk purchased a house in Istanbul for her, furnished it, and bought her clothes. Readers can now visit the house (the museum) as well as read the book.

Whether the driving-in-fog approach is for everyone, neither Grossman nor Auster would say. Both men were modest and humble in the packed tent outside Mishkenot, a video camera to Grossman’s right recording every word, the space packed to the gills, the event sold out weeks in advance. When asked by the interviewer what they’d learned about their writing process after so many years at the craft and so many published novels between them, Auster offered only this: with each new project, you have to teach yourself all over again how to write a novel. It’s as if it were the first novel you’d ever written. The only difference is that now, after some 14 books, he knows that when he gets stuck, he’ll eventually get unstuck. Grossman, hands folded, listened thoughtfully, considering, and then nodded.

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