I recently had a conversation with a student who is writing a novel. She told me that she really wants the story to “just come to her.” I understand her desire for that sort of writing process. However, I’ve learned that for me, there are no guarantees about the way in which the writing will unfold.
A year or so ago, I awoke one morning with the image of a man standing in a river facing against the current. The man was familiar to me at the time as he is one of the characters in the novel I am now working to complete. He stood in a flowing river facing a waterfall. This image later turned into the beginning of particularly vivid scene. But, in order for that image to be transformed into a scene, I had to sit down and do the work of writing to find out what was going on.
On the day the image first appeared I had no idea what that man was doing in the river, what he would do next, or why he was there. Interestingly enough, at that point in the novel’s development the man was the brother of the main character. I really thought that the entire story revolved around his sister. Diving into that image eventually revealed him to be more complex than I’d originally thought he was. It became clear that he was the person who was taking the biggest risk in the story and the one who had the most to gain or lose through his actions. Eventually, I found out that the man standing in the river was the main character.
When I write I sit down with a pencil and paper, or with my laptop and most of the time I have no idea what will come next. I just play with words and ideas. This is true no matter what genre I’m working in. I make lists, entertain ideas, toss out ideas, do research, ruminate about the project, make another cup of tea, and I write. And I rewrite. It’s all part of the process. I don’t expect to receive images in dreams, but I don’t turn them away when they show up, either. My dreams have always been welcome and before I called myself a writer, I remembered them, talked about them, wrote them down and respected them.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that my conversation with this student made me think about writing and how it gets done. Or rather how I get it done. I made sure to tell her that my experience with the image of the man in the river was fortuitous, and that so far, it’s the only time it’s happened. I’m still writing the story and it continues to develop along with its characters. The man in the river is a solid, troubled, flawed and wonderfully human main character. And we’ll see.
Causes Joyce Young Supports
VONA Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, California Poets in the Schools, La Pena Cultural Center