“When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas . . . But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”
—Philip Guston, paraphrasing John Cage
There are stories that seem to write themselves. They come quickly and easily, and I feel as if someone else — the muse — is responsible for them. This happens rarely. I’m not sure these stories are better than the ones I struggle with, where every word needs to be torn out of whatever place holds words and then planted in the text with scraped metaphoric hands.
And there are stories that partly come easily and partly are a fight. I’m not sure I believe in the classic Freudian subconscious, but I used to say I wrote out of my subconscious. I certainly do rely on instinct, feeling, the irrational a lot. Sometimes entire lines or paragraphs float up out of nowhere. Sometimes there is an image or situation that haunts me. It has to go into the story, though I’m not sure why. This can be a difficult way to write, since I don’t have a plot to rely on. I am feeling my way through the story. Don’t ever write a novel this way. I have written four. It’s a hard, slow process. The good part of it is, I can end in unexpected places.
I did plot Ring of Swords; and planning ahead makes a certain kind of complexity possible. My earlier novels are basically picaresque. I set my characters in motion and they travel and have experiences. It’s a simple kind of story. One damn thing after another.
There are a couple of problems with plots. You can reach a point where you know what the plot tells you to do, but it doesn’t seem plausible. This is when writers say their characters are fighting them. The characters don’t want to do what the plot requires. Then you either change the plot, or you try to figure out why the character would do what the plot requires.
The other problem is, a story that is too well plotted may seem lifeless, as if written by a machine. (I will tiptoe past ChatGPT and actual machine writing.) The writer is doing a job, not exploring an idea or situation.
One advantage of genre fiction is, it gives you a plot: the romance, the investigation, the space war… Then you can concentrate on other things, the stuff that floats up out of your mind, or that ideas that interest you. The genre plot will trudge along and bring the story to its end. Some SFF plots are clearly of this kind: the fantasy quest, the saving the kingdom or the world. They will trudge to their preordained end, long after I have stopped reading. Other SFF plots are a lot more quirky and interesting.
I am not sure that Guston is talking about any of this. But the stories that seem to come out of nowhere feel as if I have left the room and the story is typing itself. I wish this would happen more often. I could come in after a walk and find a complete story on the computer, ready to go out.
There was a period in my 20s when I was mostly writing poetry. Then, starting around the time I was 30, I concentrated on fiction. In a lot of ways, I write fiction the way I write lyric poetry: more or less intuitively. Obviously I have characters, and they interest me, but… In my current story two characters are trapped in a sinkhole. This provides a little drama and excitement. But the situation, the image seems important: the dark hole with sheer walls. I’m not sure the situation is plausible, but then neither are the characters. One is a cat that is six feet tall when he stands on his hind legs, as he almost always does. The other is a small dragon. Both are intelligent and talk. The cat wears clothes. What does the sinkhole mean? I have a certain number of caves in my fiction, which must represent something. Fear of falling? The unconscious? The deep, dark, scary basement of reality? As a rule, I don’t over analyze my fiction, for fear it will lose power if I know what I’m doing. So the meaning of the sinkhole will most likely remain unknown…