by Irina Slav
I spent some five hours yesterday writing a story that was supposed to be short. I had a dream, it had the kernel of what I thought would be a good story, so I sat down and started typing. Short, sharp, and supernatural, that’s how I like them! Well, not this time, at least so far. I’ve gone beyond 3,000 words already and it looks like I haven’t even got to the middle of the story, not to speak about the ending. And this is the reason I write.
One of my few truly favorite authors admits that he has only ever made plot plans for two of his books. Or maybe it was just the one, Dead Zone. The rest of the time King simply asks “What if?” and sees where the answer will take him. I only realized I was doing the same thing recently, after reading his “On Writing”, but it definitely made me feel much better about the fact that I. Simply. Cannot. Make. Advance Plans when it comes to writing. I’m far from comparing myself to Stephen King, of course, but he is my mentor in a sense and it was liberating to stop worrying that I don’t plan my stories. Actually, it is not something I’m unwilling to do, it’s something that I find impossible. Let me give you an example with that last story.
I was thinking about a party that subtly goes not exactly wrong but a bit darker than comfortable. I had a character, the birthday girl, or rather woman, because I wanted her to be 45. As I started writing, however, it turned out that this won’t work. She wanted to be a decade younger. And, of course, when I say “she wanted”, I mean “that part of my brain that identifies with the characters in order to achieve a greater extent of plausibility wanted”, but “she wanted”, as you can see, is shorter. Part of the reason is that it’s logical that I would feel on firmer ground with a character my age, but that could very well be a fallacy — I know more than enough women over 40 and I’m pretty sure I’d have no trouble making a character of that age plausible enough for my purposes.
I was also thinking that she would be single, temporarily or more likely permanently because she liked her life carefree and with no strings of any kind. Or maybe she was gay and secretly in love with her best friend. This was in fact the direction I liked the most but it suddenly turned out, as she was talking to that same best friend while making pancakes for her birthday guests, that she was a widow and still mourned her husband. I was honestly surprised. I like a bit of drama based on suppressed desires so the widow stuff would not have been my first choice. But, apparently, that other part of me wanted things this way. I have to say I never, ever argue with that part. It’s an instinctive part, it follows its nose, unlike the part I’d call Conscious Me, who always analyzes, doubts and backtracks at the first little obstacle.
Instead of getting on with the most important thing — as I thought when I set out — that is, revealing the supernatural and watching all parties concerned gasp in shock, I spent half the afternoon digging into that woman’s family history, I guess as a way of making her portrait more complete for some reason or another that I’m not precisely very clear about. I don’t do portraits, I do sketches. I can’t be bothered with portraits, I thought. But here’s the funnier (funny as in ha-ha, not as in peculiar) thing — she wasn’t even supposed to be the main character, it was her best friend that should have been at the center of events. The simplest explanation would be that we all, or most of us, unwillingly or not project ourselves onto others and what better space for projection than a literary character? I admit this first woman is more like me than her friend but, and this is the really fascinating part, maybe she’s not and I just haven’t discovered that yet.
Writing a story is a form of exhibitionism, that’s a fact I suppose, but it’s also very much like reading a book or watching a movie (I think in images while I write, which, I guess, is a common practice, since it’s the easiest. Then again, I’m being subjective, I don’t know how other people see things when they write.). You watch as the story unfolds and surprises you, takes you places you never planned on visiting, and sometimes shocks you. Yeah, I’ve managed to shock myself more than once, and I insist that I know myself better than the average person — based on numerous observations, by the way, don’t take my word for it — because I’ve put effort into it, and I find that this is not an effort everyone is willing to make, and for a good reason — it’s not fun to unearth your really bad sides and try to make peace with them. Hell, some people can’t even stand their own company, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Also, there’s this quote from Umberto Eco, it’s worth pondering, I promise.
But it’s this that is the most gratifying part of writing — that you don’t just create something that someone will like and value (opinions have always differed as to what is of value, and always will), but that you create something that can surprise you too, not just the readers. I feel I’m saying something very simple using too many words, so here’s the short version: I love writing because I want to know what happens at the end of the story, and writing it is the only way to find out. I still don’t know what will happen to those party girls and boys who I put in a small country house but I’m sure it won’t be bloody or anything like that. It’s much more likely that one particular girl is in for a big surprise, which will, probably, leave her a bit sadder than when she came. Or maybe they’ll live happily ever after, who knows? I don’t, for sure.