Where to Begin?

November 3rd, 2011

Last month, at the Wisconsin Book Festival, I did a reading with Larry Watson, the author, of among other novels, a short, riveting, beautifully made one called MONTANA 1948. After we read from our work–Larry read from his new novel, AMERICAN BOY, which, like MONTANA 1948, is quiet and low-key in style but powerful in its depiction of human frailty–we answered questions, one of which was this: How do you begin your stories or novels? Do you have an outline or map? If not, how do you know where you’re going?

Larry and I both said that we didn’t necessarily know where a particular story or novel is headed when we begin it. I said that I often start with little more than a general notion about a character, and then follow the character to wherever he or she seems to lead me. You discover who or what you’re writing about as you write–at least, that’s the hope. Of course, this “method” will sometimes take you into thickets of trouble, with no apparent trail out of them, but the chances are that you will have discovered something useful in the process of getting lost and may have even written some salvageable passages.

Larry said that there was “something intuitive” in the way he went about beginning a novel, and he went on to note that a non-linear approach allowed him to digress, to take side-trips into the wilderness–excursions that may or may not end up in the final version of the novel but which nonetheless serve to help the writer understand more deeply the nature of his characters. Later, in an email, he said this to me: “It strikes me now–things always strike me after the fact–that the map metaphor might be the wrong one for writing fiction. Or at least the wrong one for some writers. What if we used a painting metaphor–a blank canvas as opposed to a paint-by-numbers canvas?”

The next night, I came back to the same venue (the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Madison) to hear three other fiction writers read: Diana Abu-Jaber, Mary Gordon, and Jacquelyn Mitchard. (Mary Gordon had been scheduled to read with Larry Watson and me, but the plane that was to bring her from New York had the sort of mechanical “issues” at the departure gate–a smoking engine part, to name one–that can scare reasonable people into finding alternative transportation, so she delayed her arrival.) The three writers were asked the same question: How do you begin?

All three women said pretty much the opposite of what Larry and I had said, and seemed to suggest in their answers that it was kind of nutty not to begin with some sort of map. Diana Abu-Jaber, a friend and the author of such wonderful novels as ARABIAN JAZZ and CRESCENT and most recently BIRDS OF PARADISE, said that she begins her novels with a fairly detailed outline at hand, though she added that she felt free, once she was some way into a book, to lay the outline aside and let her novel go wherever it seemed to be going. An outline is useful, in other words, until it isn’t. One sometimes has the sense reading Diana’s books, so full are they with foods deliciously described, that she is often happily led astray from her outline by the scent of something on the stove, either something in her own kitchen or something down the block. Her readers are only too willing to follow her. There are all kinds of ways to write novels and all kinds of ways to satisfy hunger.

Mary Gordon, whose first book, FINAL PAYMENTS, remains, thirty-three years after it came out, one of the finest novels by a writer of my generation, also said that she needed to know where she was going before she started. She didn’t say much about why she feels this way, but her fiction is to some degree about opposing ideas, and much of the power and beauty of her fiction comes from the way she dramatically pits those ideas against each other, from the way, that is, she constructs an argument. (In an interesting aside, she said that the digressive portions of a novel that one ends up cutting out are absolutely vital to the book, that a writer has to write them and then give them up before the book can be any good.)

Of the three women, the most adamant believer in starting with a map was Jacquelyn Mitchard, the author of several very successful novels, including THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN. Mitchard said that “if I’m going to Minneapolis, I want to get on a train that’s going to take me there,” not somewhere else. (It might be noted here that long-distance American trains, the kind on which you might have time enough to read a novel, don’t always make it to where they’re supposedly going, and passengers are sometimes required to disembark from these underfunded broken-down trains and stand around in some lonesome place before a bus picks them up and carries them by some possibly obscure route to the big city.) She then ranted about writers who “channel” their fiction–read: “writers who take an approach different from my own.” She said, “I don’t get that channel on my cable.”

It may have merely been a coincidence that the two male writers took an “intuitive” approach while the three female writers seemed to be more of the rationalist school. Or it may be that there is actually some sort of gender-stereotype reversal going on. It is a fact, supported by much anecdotal evidence, that while male drivers (to stick with the transportation metaphor) won’t ask for a map when lost, female ones will.

Is the intuitive approach just another sign of male arrogance and laziness? Or does it indicate some faith in the creative subconscious, some recognition that it’s more productive in the end if you don’t try to control everything that passes through your mind (and censor what seems to be not “pertinent” to the so-called task at hand)?

But then there is the example of an imperiously intellectual male writer such as Vladimir Nabokov, whose novels and stories were often constructed like chess problems (”meant for the delectation of the very expert solver”), with every move thought out far in advance. Every word he wrote was, he claimed, an entirely deliberate and artistic choice, art being in his view something quite separate from life, an improvement on life, in fact. The brilliant maps he began with were in his formidable head.

But Nabokov–who, incidentally, did not do his own driving or typing; his wife, Vera, did these things for him– is, as he would’ve pointed out, something of an exception. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a good example of the modern male intuitionist. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about him, Murakami said that he begins a story or novel with nothing more than an image or a title “and then just sits at his desk, morning after morning, improvising until it’s done.”

John Irving once said that he doesn’t discover where to begin until he finishes a draft of the novel and knows how the book will end. He finds a map in the course of writing rather than beginning with one.

And here is what a female writer, Flannery O’Connor, whom Mary Gordon (in an essay of thirty years ago, which can be found in her collection GOOD BOYS AND DEAD GIRLS) has described as “a superb and practical critic,” says on the same subject, in a 1957 letter to a fellow Southern writer named Cecil Dawkins: “I have heard that Katharine Anne Porter writes her stories in her head before she puts them down but I always tend to think such reports are exaggerated, perhaps because they don’t fit with what I find I can do. I always have an idea of what I want to do when I write a story, but whether I’ll be able to remains always to be seen. I am writing a story now and have proceeded at a regular rate of two pages a day, following my nose more or less. They have to work out some way or other, and I think you discover a good deal more in the process when you don’t have too definite ideas about what you want to do.”

Though some writing teachers and novelists with pulpits may suggest otherwise, it seems clear that there is no right way to begin a story or a novel. All that matters in the end is the finished thing–and whether the finished thing has, as William Maxwell put it, “the breath of life” in it. Flannery O’Connor’s description of how she goes about it–with an idea but “following my nose more or less”–seems like perfectly sound advice (while not being a recipe).

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