I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières, Birds without Wings (New York: Knopf, 2004), a terrifying novel about Turkey in World War I. He describes a potter named Iskander, as he begins a new piece: “He frequently did not know what he was going to make until he had started to make it. This was a kind of courtesy to his material, which seemed often to have preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become. Sometimes it would wobble about, or collapse, if he tried to make a bowl out of clay that wanted to be a pot, or vice versa, and it was best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while, get the feel of it and then watch it grow into something. ‘Take your time,’ he would say to himself, ‘if the cat’s in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens,’” (p. 286).
This passage reminds me of a startling discovery I made some years ago, when I first began to write fiction. I was trained as a devoted planner, one who figured out the whole piece before writing a word, then produced an outline, and followed it closely.
Then I heard the playwright August Wilson describe his composing method, which went something like this: write a sentence, write another sentence, keep writing sentences until you perceive two voices. Then assign the sentences to two voices, and keep writing and assigning sentences until you notice a third voice. Six months later, he had a three-act play.
“Weird,” thought I. But then I recognized that I pictured disconnected scenes in my head. So I started writing them down, and they eventually resolved into a narrative and then a plot and a novel. I’m now halfway through my fourth novel written without planning.
What does this have to do with Iskander the Potter?
If you have narrative materials in your head, let the writing staff in your brain write what they want to say, rather than forcing yourself on them. Just relax and type, and let it flow.
It works like this. Two characters are talking, and suddenly they’re digressing into things you hadn’t planned or imagined. I’m writing about two boys, 8 and 7, camping in the woods. They get into an argument about equipment they did or did not bring, which leads to deciding what you need to carry versus what you make on the spot. Their parents get lost in a park near their house, and slide sideways into discovering they’re terrified by the park, despite the fact that they bought their house to live near it. Later the boys find a .30-calibre machine gun in the woods.
None of this was planned. I just got the “feel of it and then watched it grow into something.”
Iskander the Potter finds it works “best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while.” The writing equivalent is an extreme form of drafting. Just type sentences, and watch what comes out. Don’t ask why the characters are saying and doing things, just let them act. As the text accumulates, the plot emerges.
Now I know this sounds like nonsense to you writers who are planners, and for you, it is. But if you’re a plunger, one who types to discover what you want to say, it might work for you. You might find that your story has “preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become.”
[Let me know if you have experiences similar to mine.]
[I will be speaking at the F+W Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton New York Hotel on January 21, 10:00-10:50, on how to escape your writing teachers.]