Excerpted from a talk I gave at Writers on the River in Corvallis, OR, May, 2013:
The Story and The Question
Say you want to write a story, or if you’re truly dedicated – and maybe even a little masochistic – say you want to write a novel. Where do you begin?
“I’ve got an idea for a novel.” – said every person you’ve ever met.
What could possibly be the problem with that? Isn’t it wonderful, all these people walking around, brimming with ideas for novels? The problem is that, “Idea for a novel,” for most people, is shorthand for a condensed version of plot. What people in the publishing world call a pitch. Eat, Pray, Love: A woman finds herself divorced and travels the world, healing and finding love again. That’s an example of a pitch. A pitch is fine and dandy, but here’s the trick of having an IDEA for a novel:
You actually have to write the novel.
You have to pile up three hundred pages of words, the right words, in the right order, every day for two years, or three or four, and make something vaguely bookshaped, something that kinda sorta looks like your idea… from four years ago, which, turns out, wasn’t enough to hang your hat on, much less three hundred pages on.
So… scratch that. Let’s begin with CHARACTER. Pretty good plan, and something you hear a lot about in writing workshops. Worry about plot later, begin with character. Someone fully imagined, someone you know down to his flat but oddly striated toenails. You’ve imagined his quirks, you’ve performed mock interviews with your character, who is a scuba diver named Barney Peltz from Jones Beach who smells of stress sweat and mildewed shower grout, whose trailer is full of wood paneling and cockatiels all named Bernice, and then… and then… What?
You realize you have a character, complete with a history and an encyclopedia of more quirks than you could possibly use, but you have no story. Plus, that thing about the cockatiels no longer works so well in chapter 6, when Barney begins rehabilitating bobcats.
Nearly every technique we know for beginning a novel is fraught with risk. Risk that we’ll run out of steam, that we’ll begin with something, but it won’t be enough to keep us going till the last page.
Start with THEME? Help us out, John Gardner.
"By theme we mean not a message -- a word no good writer likes applied to his work -- but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation." - John Gardner.
Now there’s a sexy theme! There are a lot of novels about race, about class, about mortality. How then can theme be enough?
How about if you begin with VOICE. But whose voice? Character’s voice? Narrator’s voice? A husky voice, a quavering voice, a saw through your bones voice, a Southern “I’m fixing to get Brittany from Super WalMart” voice. Can you write a novel with only voice? A tall order.
Begin with SETTING, but know before the last cab tears across the Brooklyn Bridge which of those 8 million people you’re populating your novel with, and why their story must be told here and now and nowhere else in this wide world.
No matter where you begin, there are still so many variables. Character, plot, voice – these are all essentials for constructing a novel, much as the tire, the steering wheel, the gas pedal are key components of a working automobile. But the engine – that’s what we’re really looking for.
What if we started somewhere else? From a place of curiosity and heartbreak and mind-rattling frustration.
“All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That – that is the raison d’etre of the art of the novel.” – Milan Kundera
“To try to understand it,” says Mr. Kundera. Writing is just that. To try to understand something, and not necessarily to succeed. It’s a messy business. We’re talking about an unanswerable question, the kind of question that sits at the core of you and only you, the kind that you’re willing to spend a lifetime worrying at, like a permanent splinter that keeps working its way down deeper into your heart.
When you write a novel, you’ll make certain decisions, and they will inevitably be the wrong decisions. You’ll have to change strategies, change characters, themes, ideas. So, if you’ve got that one thing, if you’re pinning it all on a single idea – the Uncle who fought in Vietnam, who had some interesting stories to tell – if that’s all you’ve got, believe me when I tell you it just ain’t enough.
Here’s where the sermon comes in. You must have something deeper and richer than a single character or a clever idea. You must have something inexhaustible, a fire that will burn even if you tear away all the kindling, a fire that will keep you warm for the years you will spend stacking these words.
That thing is your question, and only you know what it is.
The Question. Nabokov called it the “nerves of the novel… the subliminal coordinates with which to focus the plot.”
I like that he called it the “nerves” of the novel, don’t you? Because The Question is not the heart that fails, or the eyes that fade, or the tongue, dulled. The question is a live wire, connected to everything, providing juice for the whole body of the novel.
“Coordinates” works beautifully too because you can’t get lost. Change character, change setting, but let the question bring you back to the center, every chapter, again and again.
You see, too, that it’s connected to plot. Which means, by the way, that we’re not arguing that you dispense with the building blocks of a novel; rather, that you let them grow out of the question. The question helps you see character, setting, plot, theme, voice, POV. It’s the novel as kaleidoscope. Or better: the question as binoculars through which you see the novel. The question is that knob that allows you to focus the plot.
Jim Shepard: “It is… the question to which the novel keeps obsessively returning.”
And here is my own notion of the question as a self-sustaining fire. The Question doesn’t burn out. You will return to it during those dark days when you’ll lose the novel – no one talks about that time, do they? – when you’re no longer sure where the book is headed, never mind if it’ll get there. That will happen when you write a novel or a memoir or a story collection. That’s when you need the question to sustain you. The Question is the engine. The Question is the beacon.
The Question must be…
1) general and grand.
General because it can’t be, “Will Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky knock boots?” You’re not asking about your specific characters or your particular plot. You’re not asking what happens next. Remember: character and plot, that stuff is preceded by The Question.
But, it must be grand, because it has to matter. Especially to you.
2) cannot be answered.
By you. Not now, not in four years, probably not ever. Kurt Vonnegut, when asked why he wrote, said, “I write again and again about my family.” That all his work, no matter what the apparent subject matter, was really about trying to understand his family. The Question is what eats at you, the thing you’re willing to spend your career trying to answer.
3) has to be something you feel in your gut.
Something that is endlessly interesting to you intellectually, but more importantly, something that is an emotional landmine. Because the emotional part has to come through in your writing. This is why when you begin a novel with only character or theme or setting, without The Question, it often feels lifeless. It’s a motley collection of organs without the nerves.
“Authors don’t create anything out of whole cloth. Like the patient on the analytic sofa, we fixate on particular stories and characters and themes because they speak to the fears and desires hidden within us. Our inventions inevitably take the form of veiled confessions.” – Steve Almond.
“Veiled confessions.” Well, if that’s not enough to scare the bejeesus out of any writer, I don’t know what is. He goes on to say, “The beauty of the artistic unconscious is that it allows us to sneak up on our own intentions or to disguise them altogether.”
But what if… we tried to be more aware of our confessions, our intentions? What if it’s simply a matter of reading more, and writing more, and paying close enough attention that we can find our subliminal coordinates? I’m not keen on the idea that we’re always mindlessly spitting out confessions on the page. And why the shame? Why not know exactly what consumes us, and put it out into the damn world anyway?
“Write what you can learn about. Alternately: Write what interests you. Because it interests you for a reason, and that reason probably has to do with the rough stuff of your inner life.” – Fiona Maazel
Can you ever truly forgive? Does a scar mean you’re weaker or stronger? When we start to see someone for who they are, do we love them more or less?
These are all variations of The Question. Note that there’s something general about them, something inclusive. Recognize them for their grandness, too. To speak of love or mercy is to be both general and grand. It is to attempt to throw a lasso around the world, to luxuriate in the impossibility of such a feat. For you, as writers, all that matters is that the question is already there, within you. You don’t have to go out to look for it.
“Does a human life, a “personality,” exist as a single thread that can be followed through time? Is the “me” of twenty years ago the same “me” that exists now? Will I still be “me” in twenty years? I find myself drawn to these questions, and the more I think about them, the more they feel uncomfortable and difficult to answer…” – Dan Chaon
Uncomfortable and difficult to answer. But it doesn’t mean you stop trying. Hemingway said, “For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”
So, lest we venture too far afield into the abstract, let’s come back to earth. What if you’re sitting there, right now, worrying over the fact that you don’t yet know your question? What then? Write more. Read more. It is only by doing this that you can know what you care about.
Be attuned to the work you write and read. Your taste in literature is a barometer for where you are in life, for what you need. Sometimes we read aspirationally, we’re drawn to works that portray what we want to be in that moment in our lives, works that speak to questions we’re wrestling with consciously or subconsciously. Even our tendency to read escapist works tells us something about ourselves, that we’re looking for something that can take us away from our own thoughts and biases.
When you read the work of another author and feel gut punched by it, guess what… you’ve got a lead. Follow your queasy stomach. Ask yourself, what is the question this author keeps returning to obsessively? And why does it speak to me? What took this particular book beyond the realm of pleasure-reading to true nourishment? The best work, the work constructed around The Question, that is the work that feeds you.
Once you find it, keep it close to you. Lean into it. Use it in the beginning just to get yourself in that chair, when you’d rather do anything else. Cling to it when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.
Jim Shepard again: “We don’t know, exactly, what we’re doing when we’re starting something. We have a vague and skeletal and oafish idea that we articulate to ourselves as a justification for beginning, but that’s about it. It turns out, thank God, that what we end up with is more intricate and subtle than that. Mostly because it turns out that our intuition is a greater genius than we are. And mostly, too, because we’re not declaiming when we write fiction; we’re exploring. We’re turning characters that we’re getting to understand with more intimacy and confidence loose in certain situations, and observing their behavior, and what we believe and feel is then being mimed back to us. We’re in the process of teaching ourselves…”
You’re teaching yourself when you write. Loosen your grip. Let the work teach you what it will ultimately be. Surprise yourself. Having a question means you already have a built-in scaffolding, a safety net. Fumble around in the dark all you want, you’re still exploring with a purpose.
Interviewer to Wells Tower: Are you able to find those emotional goals yourself, or do you need other people, between drafts, to help you re-steer the boat?
Tower: “I don’t know if someone else can tell you. When you are revising or looking at that draft, you know where the real wood is behind the fiberboard. You know when you hit something that feels real and true and that needs to be said, and then you go back and try to make everything feel like that, which is hard.
I love that idea that in our own work, we can learn to distinguish between the real wood and the fiberboard. We’ve all had the experience of writing something we feel good about, only to return to it a few weeks or months later and cringe. That’s the blessing of time and fresh eyes. But even when you make massive changes, sweeping changes, don’t you often find yourself leaving one thing unchanged, whether it’s a paragraph or a piece of physical description, even a sentence or word? Something that you have no urge to touch or tamper with. That’s the real wood behind the fiberboard. And that, more often than not, is where you’ve come closest to bumping up against your Question.
“Then you go back and try to make everything feel like that, which is hard,” says Mr. Tower. Hard to say the least. But isn’t it a small and beautiful comfort to know that we have a compass point?
Note that he says, “I don’t know if someone else can tell you.” That’s true. Only you know. Your question is born from your own life, your grief and joy, from the art that makes you gasp and itch to be in the game.
Your question is your own ghost. No one else can help you identify it. Our job, as readers, is to watch you, the author, make a career of dancing with it.