The unpredictability of narrative. It’s uncanny. I’ve had it happen to me more than once. Inexplicably, a story moves out from under you with a single key stroke and you’re left just as blind to the ending as each of the characters. If I discuss a story I’m writing, people may ask me, “What happens next?” and I can only answer, “I don’t know.” Or they might ask me, “What’s that character like?” and I can only answer, “I’m still finding out.” It sounds absurd, but there it is. Writers write about characters. They don’t merely chracterize, or give names and a face to, bare passing thoughts. As any student of philosophy knows, even the best ideas are tearfully boring unless they are either communicated well in writing or communicated well by a living, dynamic teacher. Stories are not primarily about ideas; they are, like life itself, about people.
A writer is much more passive than many people realize. He is often subject to the whims of the narrative itself. It violates a writer’s whole way of life to force events and statements that don’t fit just to arrive at some idealized “THE END” rest station. The best writers listen for a story to unfold and then simply get credit for transcribing it well. William Faulkner, one of my favorite authors, took this subjection to a radical, literal extreme when he wrote _A Light in August_. He imagined a young girl walking barefoot down a dirt road in August and determined to write a story explaining how she got there. The results speak for themselves. Faulkner had a vision, he cauight a passing glimpse of a living character, and then he wrote. He did not plan a perfect tale and then conscript aimless, clueless characters for his purposes. That’s one reason why he’s a superb writer. He was a good listener. He heard a girl walking down the road with no shoes on and he ended up with a masterpiece.
If I may be so bold, I try to do the same as Faulkner. In truth, I rather can’t help writing like he wrote _A Light in August_. It may be an impure way for a *writer* to think, but I have a very cinematic approach to writing. Usually, I must see it and hear, like a director blocking a dress rehearsal, before I can pen a story. There must be a beating pulse before there are tapping keys. (Never mind for the moment the equally true fact of the writer’s life that very often — 95% of the time, really — there must be lots of steady disciplined tapping before you earn that pulse.) I am stung, or gripped, or caressed, by a single, unnamed image, or a passing comment from a character I may only be lucky to meet, and then I must weave those impressions into a story.
Years ago it dawned on me what my writing style, my so to speak *modus scribendi*, is, or would be: a strange and ornate structure lies below the water of my consciousness. How it got there, I don’t know. How to get it out of there, I’m not sure. But, as I aged and as I matured (two very different things), I noticed that quite apart from me the tide would ebb and flow; with every drop in the sea level, various peaks of that mysterious opaque structure would peak through. I would see a scene. I would hear a voice. And then–! And then the waters would rise, and the buidling, or at least most of it, would disappear until further notice.
Gradually, I would start to have a mental map of how these peaks and angles all fit together. The story is all there, even if it is comprised of many unrelated stories, like floors and rooms in one building. My task is to watch the tides and tell what I see. A squat man talking nervously over an office copy machine — who is he? Where does he belong? Who is he talking to? The sweaty young baseball player in the outfield after school watching cars driver by — who is he? Where does he belong? And why am I certain he and the copy machine man belong in the same story? I study the lines, triangulate the voices, sound the depths — but to no avail. The waters rise suddenly and I must wait for future connections. I’m still waiting. In the meanwhile, I must keep tapping.