Last night, before bed, I read this article on The Atlantic‘s weekly series, “By Heart”. It was their end of year round up of the series which interviews writers and asks them to discuss their craft based on a sentence they love. There were lots of excerpts that were excellent and although I disagreed with some of them I found them all valuable. This thing of writing is so personal and so often romanticized that to see how other people approach it, and what works for them is so damned useful. Rather than think, “oh, Jim Harrison does it this way, so I have to as well,” you can look at another author and go, “yes, that feels right to me.” Not that Jim Harrison’s way is wrong, but it might be wrong for you. I think I responded most to Linn Ullman’s quoted interview (full one here.) She talks about needing a place for her characters to inhabit before she can really understand what they do and what these actions mean for the story and for their characters.
Here is the part that The Atlantic excerpted:
When I begin writing, I need to have a place. It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time. If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.
In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.
I think I responded so much to this because I agree with what she says about world building, because without place we don’t have context. We don’t have space for our characters to move around in. And we don’t have real consequences for the choices a character might make. I love that she says “they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next– and they help point the way forward.” I completely agree, and I like it as a function of story craft. It is the events and the characters that dictate the story.
If I were to choose my quote it might be the one that is currently emblazoned on my coffee mug. It’s by Walt Whitman and it reads: “The secret of it all is to write… without waiting for a fit time or place.”
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