Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the edge of the Great Unknown

What do you write about when you don’t know what to write?

At first glance that might seem like a ridiculous question—why would you (or I or anyone) write if you didn’t have anything to say? But think about it, a good part of our writing—maybe most of it—isn’t done when we feel like writing, that is, when we feel that we have something to say, but rather when it is demanded of us.

School papers. I’m sorry, professor, I didn’t write my thesis because I just didn’t feel the need to express anything at this time.

Work assignments. Customers on the website really just look at the pictures. No, really, boss. And I’m sure there’s an editor somewhere shouting, those newspaper column inches need to be filled—go out and make some news if you can’t find it. (By the way, let’s all make a point of reading a newspaper so they don’t become a thing of the past.)

National Novel Writing Month is prime territory for this dilemma. It feels a bit like jumping into the Great Unknown. Just trying typing 1,600-and-some words of don’t-know-what-to-say and you’ll get a little insight into the daily angst of crazies around the world that are attempting this.

But they’re happy crazies, at least I know I am, and I talked to another one last night. I got a call from my college alma mater—the annual giving call. I actually don’t mind these calls, because they are made by some of the university’s undergraduates, and that means I get a peek into what life is like there these days. Last night the sophomore I spoke to was friendly and upbeat until I mentioned NaNoWriMo—and then she revealed the happy crazy that she really is. Wow, she said, I’m doing it too. And then we forgot all about college and the big wide world for a few minutes and talked about the novels we’re trying to shepherd into the world and the big question of what do you write about when you don’t know what to write.

I felt good when I got off the phone, not at all like I’d just been hit up for money. More like I’d crossed paths with a kindred spirit, who is having just as challenging and satisfying a hike up her path as I am on mine.

Back to those nineteenth- and early twentieth-century friends I made this fall. I think that’s why they hung together like clusters of grapes—it helps to have a kindred spirit or two handy, especially when you don’t know what to write about. Emerson gathered up the like-minded to his little community in Concord. Melville bought a house in the Berkshires when he learned that Hawthorne and others were there. Longfellow hosted virtually all of the major writers of his day at his house in Cambridge. They all wanted the luxury to talk writing with someone who knew what the heck they were talking about. Others who had been crazy enough at some point in their lives to jump into the Great Unknown.

They didn’t have the global-hopping Internet capability I have, so they couldn’t reach out almost instantaneously to writers around the world like I can. When I went to graduate school a number of years ago, I attended a low-residency MFA writing program at Goddard College. My schoolmates came from far-flung places and gathered for eight days twice a year. The rest of the time we went back to our own little corners of the world to live our lives and write our dreams. My “gang” of friends kept in touch (and still do) via an email list, commiserating or celebrating depending on how the work was going.

And now here I am participating in the global insanity of NaNoWriMo—and I must say that it makes me smile to think of other people all over the world wracking their brains this month just the way I am to create something.

But with or without instant global communication the creative process is much the same. I am sitting here at my computer, but I could just as easily be scratching away on a sheet of paper with my quill pen or hand-sharpened pencil. Stories are born independent of technology—deep within the mind and heart and soul—and then somehow they appear through the fingertips and onto the page (via pen, pencil or computer, it doesn’t matter which).

Eudora Welty (her home was too far away for a day trip, but I’ll get there some time) put it like this:

“The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

I’m still typing. And who knows what I’ll uncover.

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