Control and Magic

Wednesday, 25-February-2009

If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that I don’t control the process. The more I control, the less interesting my writing.

With Open Line, which turned out to be a satire (as the publisher put it) of our media and political culture, all I knew at the start was that I was writing about a woman who wanted to quit her job, and as I went on even that dropped away, finally resurfacing when I reached the end. She was one person in one situation, emblematic of nothing, and she was a radio talk-show host not because that placed her at the center of the culture but because I used to host a call-in show and knew it would be fun to work with. I was well into the first draft before I sensed the scope of the story, but it came to me then as a gift, not as something I’d constructed. If I’d worked the other way around, I doubt I could have found my central character’s individuality. Instead, I’d have locked myself into something schematic and deadening.

We bring a network of thoughts, assumptions, beliefs, histories, knowledge, ignorance, and who knows what else to our writing: the entire mix of our idiosyncratic lives and beings. They’re what make our writing interesting.

Plot, which I love, is nothing by comparison. Some writers claim that only seven plots exist. One writer, at least, narrows that down to three. Two of them are A stranger comes to town and I go on a journey. I can’t remember the third, although you’d think with only three it would be simple enough. Maybe it’s Somebody dies. You’d think A couple splits up would be one of them, but you could file that under either I go on a journey or Somebody dies.

If we really do have only three plots to work with, or a generous seven, then what makes a piece of fiction matter is where we take the plot, or where it takes us. We inhabit a story (A stranger comes to town) and find elements of ourselves in the world we’ve created—our families, our politics, our passions, our half-forgotten childhood nightmares—all of them transformed into something separated from us and with luck more manageable than our incoherent selves. That’s one of the gifts of non-autobiographical fiction: You use the elements of your life, but you give yourself distance. The pain of your relationship with your sister helps animate your character’s relationship to her boss, and maybe you recognize what you’re doing and maybe you don’t but it doesn’t matter. It’s powerful, it’s (relatively) safe, and it works. Your character’s free to tell a truth that you may not be ready for in your own life. You go beyond yourself—or you can if you’re brave enough.

And if you’re lucky your sister won’t be any the wiser.

No two writers work the same way—I taught fiction writing long enough to learn that much—and many writers are able to plan their work more than I can, but they too find elements beyond their control appearing in their work. Because the things we control, the skills we’ve mastered, are nothing more than the tools we use to enter the world where the magic happens.

– Ellen Hawley

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