Writing fiction can be like dreaming, coming from our subconscious. Cheryl A. Ossola suggests writers need to get out of the story's way.
Writing a novel is a mysterious process. Authors are often at a loss when asked why they made certain choices, or where an idea came from. Sometimes we say we don’t remember, but often we don’t know. We plan story arcs and POVs, but sometimes we can’t explain what happens in the evolution of a novel. In these instances, characters and conflict rise from our subconscious. Sometimes we say the story writes itself.
I believe novelists do their best work when they get out of the way of their stories, which is why I zeroed in on an article in The Atlantic in which Andre Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog, says that “good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams.” Dubus differentiates between “making something up and imagining it,” and he favors the latter. “You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it,” he says. “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.”
This kind of rigidity in storytelling can block the deviant bursts of creativity that yield some of the most brilliant writing. These bursts come not from planning but from a freer kind of creative process that takes us to unexpected places. One way writers describe this abdication of control is by saying their characters hijacked their story. By this they mean these fictitious beings aren’t toeing the story line; in fact, they’re trampling on it. At such times we can ignore their nudges, or we can let imagination take us beyond the limits of linear thought. Allowing our stories to change in this way is a classic example of characterization driving plot, what Joshua Mohr, author of All This Life, calls “plaracterization.” Characters are “sovereign beings with independent consciousnesses,” Mohr says; given their freedom they’ll dictate the story.
I’m speaking from my own experience too. In writing the first draft of my novel, The Wild Impossibility, I was stuck in the murky middle when my protagonist, Kira—hanging out in the California desert like a sullen teenager on a family trip—got herself, and the story, unstuck. I knew how things should end up for her, but I hadn’t figured out the middle ground. Mumbling, “What the hell are you doing there, Kira?” I put words on the page until the circles I was writing in opened and became a through-line. Why? I had stopped trying to fabricate Kira’s trajectory and focused instead on who Kira was and what she wanted. I withheld what she wanted, of course, which was a controlling act. But it was in letting Kira direct my thoughts—in other words, imagining being her—that the action fell into place.
Other characters are downright pushy. Designated as walk-ons, suddenly they’re clamoring for supporting roles. In The Wild Impossibility, Dustin was one of these. He was to be no more than a means of transport for Kira, who hired this young man to squire her around the desert valley while she traced her family’s past. Soon Dustin took control of more than the wheel, butting into scene after scene until I realized that the flat character I’d envisioned was in fact an essential ally for Kira. The character he became changed the story profoundly. He was my facilitator, the key not only to the novel’s building action but to Kira—her weaknesses, her humanity, and ultimately her strength.
Fictitious beings that acquire agency? It’s a romantic idea, one that transforms a pedestrian act—putting words on a page—into something mystical, something intuitive and brilliant and indefinable. But hang on. Our characters come alive with enough force to change a story because of our doing, don’t they? We work hard to make them sparkle or smolder, and the understanding we gain in the process allows our psyches, perhaps without our recognizing it, to mastermind these changes. In responding to the people and situations we’ve created, we muffle the left brain and give voice to the right. Right?
George Saunders seems to make the argument for both—that writing fiction is partly mystical, partly deliberate. In a 2017 article in The Guardian, he explains that his characters began to “do certain things, each on his or her own,” when he was writing Lincoln in the Bardo. “[T]hey were, it seemed, working together to save young Willie Lincoln, in a complex pattern seemingly being dictated from … elsewhere. (It wasn’t me, it was them.)” A paragraph later he says: “But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you—something consistent, willful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.”
That’s an eloquent description of attaining the ideal when putting words on the page. But could this “within-and-beyond-you” phenomenon also account for a strange, seemingly serendipitous string of events that happened while I was doing research for The Wild Impossibility?
Early on I had a plot problem whose solution needed to be true to a time and place tainted by xenophobia and racism. How could a teenage girl in Owens Valley, California, and a boy imprisoned at Manzanar, a World War II Japanese American internment camp, find a way to be together? A fence surrounded Manzanar, as did surveillance towers housing armed guards. The boy couldn’t get out and, with one exception, the girl couldn’t get in—which doesn’t make for much of a love story. My research had yielded no plausible solutions, so I set off for Manzanar National Historic Site.
I’d planned to go alone, but my then-boyfriend tagged along. Manzanar lies east of the Sierra, where trout fishing is big. In our motel room was a fishing magazine. My boyfriend read it. In it was an article about a new documentary film called The Manzanar Fishing Club. The “club” was a group of intrepid prisoners who slipped under the fence at night, fished the Sierra-fed streams all day, then sneaked back into the camp after dark. A possible solution, but I needed to know more.
Once home, I checked the movie listings. The Manzanar Fishing Club was playing at a theater nearby. It was the last night of the run, the last show; the film started in less than an hour. I went. And, along with rich source material, I found a way for my teenage characters to hook up. The love story I’d envisioned could happen.
I could chalk all of this up to chance, to serendipity, to being open and receptive to information because I was searching for answers. But serendipity doesn’t usually happen in wavelike surges, one occasion chasing another in a rush to conclusion. If the preposterous chain of events that unfolded on my research trip had been in a story, beta readers would have nixed it, calling it unbelievable. And I’d have agreed, if it hadn’t happened to me.
What did happen on that trip to Manzanar? The principle of quantum entanglement appears in my book—could it be possible that my characters and I became entangled, enough so that they could nudge me toward what I needed? After all, the complex emotional and cognitive process of writing a book deserves more than a rational explanation. The melding of ideas, thoughts, language, memory, observation, creativity into a story rich in character, complex in action—it’s magical. When we stop writing self-consciously and follow the paths that open in front of us, we let our novels become what they really are—small miracles.
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