Thursday, June 19, 2014

That Certain Feeling of Uncertainty

I sat at dinner with my good friend Lisa who writes non-fiction and bragged that I was well into Book Five of a six book series. “How does it turn out?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know yet?”
“But how does Book Five turn out?”
“I’m not certain yet.”
“Well, surely you have an outline.”
“Um, I have a genealogy to keep the ages of the young characters straight. And I have a map. Well, a partial map,” I said.

“No wonder you’re stuck.”
“I’m not stuck. I just have to be patient and allow events to unfold organically.”
“How do you tolerate the uncertainty?”
“You know that myth about how all writers are alcoholics…”
“That’s not funny.”

How do I tolerate the uncertainty? How can I explain the process to you, dear reader, or to a fellow writer? I have known long periods of no writing and no creative impulses. It’s like being deaf. Some days I’m paralyzed with fear. Some days I want to throw the whole project out the window, except that’s the same a suicide – identity suicide. Some days I’m so racked with feelings of failure that I, well, let’s just say that I cry in my beer.

Will I ever finish? Will my characters ever reach a wider public? I have come to realize that these are the wrong questions.

One time I had several weeks to myself and a section I wanted to write, so I set an outline and a schedule and kept to them. I used the time productively, I felt, and wrote several pages a day. I placed characters who I knew into situations that were plausible and allowed the dialogue to unfold. I counted words at the end of the day and didn’t allow walks on the beach or long periods of daydreaming to “ruin” my writing time.

At the end of that delicious month I threw out the work, about 80 pages worth. It was forced and too linear. The desire to finish; the desire to make the time pay – these rode roughshod over the willingness to allow the characters to grow organically while I – that’s right; me, the writer – watched the story unfold. I am only the agent of the story with two hands and a keyboard. The characters drive the plot.

I have learned to live with that certain feeling of uncertainty, not knowing where the scene is going. During infrequent moments of pure illumination, I realize how the moving parts fit together. During a walk on the beach, whole scenes unfold in my head where characters get into shouting matches. Over the next days or weeks, I often track back into completed scenes for adjustments. It’s a reiterative process.

I can hear Lisa’s voice in my head. “Is it worth it? Is there ever a moment when you’re glad you squandered the time waiting for the characters to talk to you?”

It’s like a siren’s song. The vocabulary calls to me. The characters whisper in my ear. I can taste the air and hear the seabirds crying, like reaching the port of my homeland after a distant adventure. The other world becomes more real than my daily circumstance.

When the plot folds into itself for a scene where characters who were developed separately come into conflict, when the reader knows more about next events than the characters, when outcomes are balanced on the edge of a knife, when dialogue resolves tensions for several characters at once;  aaahh, moments to live for.

Like the moments at the end of Moonstruck when the family is gathered at the breakfast table and all plot twists are resolved.

My suspicion is that the level of sophistication for a story’s outcome is directly related to the writer’s willingness to be patient with characters and realize them fully for how each responds to new information.

An example from Game of Thrones, since all of America is watching the series and episodes are aired several times a week.  Season Four just wrapped up with a patricide of Tyrion’s father, and the arrival of Stannis Baratheon at the head of an army north of the wall, thus saving the fighters in Castle Black.

The patricide scene is surprising and satisfying with many twists and character resolutions, but linear. Once set into motion, a single character drives the action.

When Stannis confronts the King of the North in the presence of Jon Snow, a conversation ensues that has more potential for driving the remainder of the series. The viewer knows these three main characters more than they know each other. The viewer knows the bodies of the dead must be burned before dark. The viewer is uncertain of the fate of the King of the North, or Jon Snow, or how Stannis will manage the influx of wildings into Westeros. The dialogue of each man comes from his motivations, resolving long-standing tensions and setting the next season into motion. The plot folds in on itself.

If a writer tolerates the uncertainty and exercises patience for bringing the characters into conflict that serves the plot, then on occasion with perseverance, the writer can ‘witness’ such a resolution within a book series. 

That’s worth a lifetime of uncertainty. 

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