Yes, this is the “true topic” post…
I’ve been running away from this post for a week and I suppose that’s appropriate as I’ve been running away from the subject for most of my adult life. When I was a kid, I used to dream of stories and then I would write them. Not much has changed in the years since except that the stories have gotten further away from the dreams.
And so, if I had to nail it down, and I guess I do, my true topic is the journey of discovery. I’m a dreamer after all and this is basically what dreamers do.
Two years ago, I started working on a book called “Beastly John Skelton.” Beastly John started like many of my stories – I saw a little scene and then I started describing it. There was a girl playing in her backyard. She was new to the neighborhood and something of an outcast. A boy…
Have you ever stopped mid-sentence like that and realized just how ridiculous you sound trying to describe something you were supposed to write? Describing a story you tried/wanted to tell is a lot like trying to explain a joke after you’ve already told it.
How about I just put a little bit of the story in here for you to read…
I was out in the yard walking in circles, when I noticed a boy staring at me through the gap between the slats in the tall wooden fence. He had hair so blond it was white and his eyes were so dark they looked black. He was dressed all in black too, but not like other boys I had known. He was wearing a suit and his skin was very pale.
“You haven’t seen my cat,” the boy said.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied.
“That wasn’t a question,” he said. “It was an observation. You haven’t seen my cat, I can tell.”
I looked up into the crossing branches above, expecting to see some monstrous tiger lurking up there, but I only saw a pair of squirrels huddling together on a branch. It seemed rather odd for them to be just sitting there. They were obviously terrified.
John Skelton was watching the pattern of the leaves sway and move as the wind rustled the branches.
“I want you to stand right here,” he said and pointed to a spot of sunlight just at the edge of the shade.
“What do I do?”
“You just stand there. Kitty-Kitty is in there somewhere and we just need a reason for her to come out.”
“What sort of reason?”
I wasn’t sure I liked the way he said bait, but I didn’t get the chance to think about it for long. The wind shifted overhead and instead of standing in the sun, I was now standing inside the flickering shade. All at once I felt something move behind me, something very large. I turned and saw a huge black shape looming up over me with pointed ears and holes where there should have been eyes that went clear through the black and out to the other side.
This is a slightly edited version, two separate bits joined up together, but I think it serves to convey a sense of what I was working on.
I worked on this book diligently for a few weeks, producing just under 20K words of semi-polished prose. The story was going along well, or at least I was discovering what the story was about. Every time I finished a chapter I let my son read what I’d written. His feedback was incredibly valuable not just because it served as an inspiration to write the next chapter but because he asked questions or pointed out things I hadn’t thought about…
“I can’t wait to find out what happened to Trevor Watson.”
Whoops. I hadn’t planned on answering that question. Trevor and his nice little family just disappeared. I’d barely even mentioned them… Had I just stumbled into a plot?
In November of that year, I went to a conference in rural New Jersey. I took the book along with me. I spent evenings and mornings in my room working on new chapters, but something sort of happened to the story. It got away from me a bit, became a little too dreamy, diffuse.
And then I started wondering if this was a proper subject for me to write about in the first place…
This is when I stopped writing the story altogether. For two years, my son has been needling me to write more about Beastly John Skelton and Lillian and Trevor Watson and, of course, Kitty-Kitty. I keep saying that I’m going to get back to it, but I haven’t. I go on to the next thing and the next thing. I flit here and there always dodging the subject, always trying on some new writerly cloak.
“I can’t wait to find out who Silas really is.”
My son said this just the other night after I finished reading the first chapter of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and it reminded me of our conversations about Beastly John. It reminded me of how I felt about books I’ve loved, books like Cannery Row and The Hobbit, books which are in essence about the journey of discovery.
I was thinking about this today when a section of Wallace Stegner’s Letter to a Young Writer came to mind:
The moment you begin writing for an audience, you begin wondering if you are saying what the audience wants or expects. Nevertheless, except for vaguely imagining the audience and hoping they are there, I urge you to ignore them. Do not write what you think they would like. Write what you like. Literature speaks to temperment, Conrad says. Your books will find the temperaments they can speak to and the particular virtue of your audience is that they shall leave it up to you what should be said.
Now if you go looking for this passage, you will find that I have taken some three or four separate paragraphs and plucked the sentences I liked best to form the little ditty above. This is not what Wallace Stegner wrote but rather what I felt in reading that particular section of his letter.
The point is that I’ve come to love what it is that I write. I write about the journey of discovery, a journey which often though not always has some measure of the fantastic. In fact, that’s basically what this entire website is devoted to – the journey of discovering myself as a writer.
If you’re wondering, I’m not taking up Beastly John Skelton for NaNoWriMo, but I do have another idea and it is also a book for kids. This isn’t the story I originally thought of writing for NaNoWriMo but something totally new. I can’t wait to get started!
Also, I left in the bit above about Conrad because The Heart of Darkness is also one of my favorite books. Again, the journey of discovery… 🙂
Doing NaNoWriMo? Buddy up with me!
13 thoughts on “The Journey of Discovery”
I like how you have analyzed writing by providing an example where you cut off your own writing during the procedure. Examples like this stay in our mind, because the example is as direct as is possible.
Armen Shirvanian´s last blog post..Spoken/Written Words vs. Intent
OK, what’s the deal with Heart of Darkness? I read it in college and just thought it boring. Maybe I missed something.
Meryl K. Evans´s last blog post..Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty
I’m always amazed and inspired when I read your posts. You are so meant to be a fiction writer..you write from the imagination. Me? I write from what I observe, which is not that imaginative, but I guess still important. Anyway, thanks for always giving me a new perspective on things…
Hey, I kept my reply short this time. Yay me.
Diane Penna´s last blog post..Back to Writing!
Jamie, I love the bit of story you shared and as with so many great children’s books I think I would rather enjoy it as an adult. It has been such a wonderful and inspiring thing to be part of your journey. By sharing it with us, you really are helping us to find our own way too. Thank you Jamie!
Karen D. Swim´s last blog post..How Santa Busted My Recession Blues
@Armen Glad you liked it!
@Meryl First, thanks for the link love. 🙂 Next as for Heart of Darkness, I think it is one of those books you have to read slowly, in chunks. I did the same thing with East of Eden. I read it a bit at a time over 6 months. It takes time to grow on you… Either that or I’d read so much Graham Greene at the time that Conrad was like a breath of fresh air!
@Diane Thanks so much, but don’t sell writing from observation short. That’s the heart of all great writing. It just so happens that I tend to observe worlds that aren’t exactly there. 😉
@Karen I’m glad it helps. That’s the whole purpose of this site and what I do here. helping others by helping myself. You’re welcome!!!!
Jamie–Your son is the perfect reader because he responds as a reader. In workshops, so often, people fancy themselves critics or mistake themselves for the writer of the piece and respond from there, when what we need most as writers is to know what the reader wonders when he or she reads our work. Thanks for a great post!
Elizabeth Stark´s last blog post..On Being Anything: Chris Rock, Borges, and Raising White Boys
@Elizabeth Thanks for stopping in! 🙂 I believe that if you are going to write for children you need to get feedback from children about your work. They find things and ask questions that you would never even think of. I suppose this is true of most readers, but I’ve had more off the wall (yet completely reasonable) questions from kids than any adult reader. Thanks for the great comment!
“Have you ever stopped mid-sentence like that and realized just how ridiculous you sound trying to describe something you were supposed to write? Describing a story you tried/wanted to tell is a lot like trying to explain a joke after you’ve already told it.”
This comment definitely resonates with me. I love the honesty in the way you share the experience of writing. Thanks for sharing the journey. It makes a difference for those of us that are also finding our way.
Laura Tamayo´s last blog post..Blog Action Day: Poverty
@Laura You’re welcome, Laura. It’s good to know that my experience is helping others. 🙂
Wow, I really want to read that story. Maybe you’ll find that it’s next in line, after Nano this year. It’s Gaiman-ish and Pullman-ish in an enchanting way, I just have this feeling that I know you will finish it. And then maybe rewrite the peak and the end a few times (if you’re that kind of person), and then it’ll become your second best-selling novel. Please do!
@Lindlund Thanks so much and yes I have to finish it. When my son heard I was doing NaNoWriMo, he was very excited about me finishing Beastly John. He was a little let down that I’m not doing it, but he got excited again when I told him the story I was going to write would also be for kids. I told him that Beastly John would be the next book, so now I’m on the hook for both. 🙂
Have you ever stopped mid-sentence like that and realized just how ridiculous you sound trying to describe something you were supposed to write?
Wow – you nailed it! And here I thought it was just me. See, I’m getting ready for my first NaNo; in fact, my first fiction writing in over 30 years. I have a basic storyline figured out, kind of an oddball-fantasy/scifi-ish thing. I tried to explain it to my sister and I swear I could feel her blank stare through the stunned silence over the phone. That knocked me down enough so that I didn’t touch my plot outline for two weeks.
I finally reminded myself that no one is going to see this novel but me. I think I’m back on track now.
p.s. I just found your blog and will be checking in on your often. Love your style!
Liz C´s last blog post..Breaking new ground