Michael Kimball Guest Lecture #2: Keeping Going
So let’s say we have a great opening and maybe even a good idea or an interesting voice to go with it. Now what? How does the writer keep going? One of the things that has helped me keep going while I’m working on a novel is not thinking about it. That is, I try to not think about what I’m writing when I’m getting it down (the thinking, so to speak, comes later). For me, it’s just a voice speaking, a way of talking, and I’m trying to be receptive to it, open. I’m just trying to get from one sentence to the next sentence. Often, I do this by looking at the previous sentence—its syntax, the words in play, the acoustics of it—I’m thinking in these small ways, but not so much in bigger ways (say, story or plot or idea). I’m just trying to get material down, which is the hardest part for me. After that, after I have something to work with, then I feel like I can do something with whatever I have on the page. It’s the blankness that is difficult for me, filling in the blankness.
Here are some quotes from Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, Joseph Young, and Blake Butler that discuss a similar process in somewhat different ways.
Sam Lipsyte: “When it’s going well it’s often a compulsive experience. Like having a secret lover or a drug habit. That’s all pure feeling. Objective questions will of course intrude. Has this been done this way before? What is it exactly I’m trying to do? These are good questions, but I have to be careful. I’ll start thinking like a critic, as opposed to just thinking critically. I’ll begin to categorize, contextualize. This is all interesting when it pertains to other writing, but it can paralyze me when I apply it to my own.”
Gary Lutz: “When I was writing the stories in my first book, I often worked on runs of consecutive sentences (maybe a couple of paragraphs’ worth) at a time, but when I was halfway through my second book, I started to fixate on stand-alone sentences that I only later pieced here and there into the arising paragraphs. I wanted to get away from the long, streamy sentences and paragraphs, and the unsegmented stories, that I had got into a rut of writing for the first few years after I finished my first book. So I started composing in a different way. These days, after I’ve got going on a story, I might be working on a dozen nonsequential sentences at a time over the course of a week. I’ll labor at one sentence until I get frustrated, and then I’ll move on to the next and toil away at that until I find myself getting nowhere. Sooner or later, I might trash half of two sentences and graft the surviving halves together, or I might take one phrase from each of three sentences, discard everything else, and fit the three phrases together into one new sentence. … At that stage, I will have no idea where any of these sentences will later belong in a story. In fact, each sentence will likely end up in a completely different segment. I proceed largely by hunches, by intuition. I try to heed any emerging rhythms or patterns of sound, and I do my best not to think.”
Joseph Young: “I work by feel a lot, trusting that if a line of dialogue and a certain image give off an energy when put next to each other, then they are worth pursuing as parts of a story. If these things radiate any kind of meaningfulness then I’m okay with not knowing what they mean. But it’s their sound, the rhythm of the words, the balance and dissonance between hard sounds and soft, that lets me know I’m on the right track. If the story fills the ear in the right way, it’s got to fill the head correctly too. … The mystery of the things you write, how they got there, out of your head, on to the paper, and then, whatever does the heavy lifting in the writing process, the thing that makes up the puzzles, back there in the dark of the head, it’s better than me, smarter. I’m wary to disturb it.”
Blake Butler: “If I let myself think too far past the impulse, I find I either will think more things than I can hold (my short term memory, I fear, is blippy, though this is also an extension of obsession, i.e. fear of loss), or that I will think too far into the idea before I get the chance to let it come out of me as wanted and then will overthink it and begin in orchestration. I spent many years trying to orchestrate beforehand before the actual sitting and writing and for this I have a hard drive full of guff, which I have not yet had the heart to delete because I am a holder-on of things. Ultimately, I find that the less I can know about something, and the less I try to interfere with the signal coming off that first illuminating impulse by inserting my dumb head, the more successful I am in actually saying something new.”
I find it kind of fascinating that so much effort goes into not thinking, into letting the words happen, into following the words out onto the page, letting the words take the writer wherever the words seem to want to go. It makes me think of the Ouija board that we played with as a kid—trying to let ourselves be receptive, but the story that we were going to tell coming out regardless. Also, there’s this E.L. Doctorow quote that I’ve always liked: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The Doctorow resonates with the way that Flannery O’Connor talks about writing in “Writing Short Stories”—writing as an act of discovery. Flannery O’Connor did not know what was going to happen next in the story. Andy Devine gets at this another way: “The reader should never know what the next sentence is going to be.” It is, after all, one of the great things about writing fiction—anything can happen.
Of course, the writing can’t just be anything. It has to be something. It has to accumulate, to increase the tension, to move forward, etc. For that, I’ve always found this Raymond Carver quote from “On Writing” helpful: “There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story.” Also, this from George Saunders (via Opium): “The moments when things gets complicated, that’s what we try to move towards.”
So how do you keep going? What do you move toward?