O Foolish Writer: The Living Reality of an Author’s Work

I think some people think writers, as they build their fictional worlds, simply sit down and invent the details, putting together characters and places and storylines like someone puts together IKEA furniture. We’ll call that the Allen Key Approach to World Building.

I suspect, though, that most writers don’t build their worlds that way. For me, anyway, the process is as much like discovery as it is like invention. In writing poetry, I have tried to bend my mind to an idea or image or form. As a result, I’ve come to think that form and content emerge together. It is a good exercise in writing, but in creating worlds, in shaping stories, the process for me is more reciprocal, and far more accidental. Stephen King describes the beginning well:

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing right at you out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (Stephen King, On Writing).

King goes on to talk about how the idea of Carrie, his breakout novel and an upcoming movie with Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, came from that crash of two unrelated ideas coming together–in this case, taunting girls in a locker room and  supernatural powers. There is symbolic value in the original Carrie novel, most predominantly the image of “blood.” But that symbolism emerged out of the writing, and King only seized upon it in the editing and rewriting stage.

C.S. Lewis also describes the process of writing as a kind of discovery–in this case, a windowsill watching of the world in his imaginative garden.

I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common  flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together.  Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all  that’)  a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story; without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing,  have to contrive reasons why these characters  should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way of writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 32-3).

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisLewis uses two other images to capture that imaginative impulse: bubbling up and fermentation:

In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story.  For  me it  invariably  begins  with  mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, 32-3).

Substitute brewers for jam-making housewives and you can bring both those images together into one. In that way, subcreation is also like being in love. And as writers, we know that our beloved can be moody and temperamental at times.

TEHANU with Intro by Le GuinLewis goes on to talk about the shaping of the author’s desire, the discipline to turn it into a story. But sometimes the force of the story moving forward and the character development in their natural environment is beyond out ability to control. Ursula Le Guin, considering the creation of her Earthsea Cycle, admits that some things seemed to be outside of her specific manipulation:

At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now. And, just as in the now of the so-called real world, I didn’t know what would happen next. I could guess, foretell, fear, hope, but I didn’t know.

Unable to continue Tehanu’s story (because it hadn’t happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: “The Last Book of Earthsea.”

O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a time, now isn’t then (Ursula Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, 3).

Tales From Earthsea by Le Guin“Now” moves. Although Le Guin as author created the world of Earthsea, it is inauthentic for her to exert the sort of control that says, “this is the last story.” This quotation comes from the beginning of her collection of short stories and historical background to the Earthsea Cycle, and she went on to write a fifth book, The Other Wind. Now moves on, and if the author is wise, she will tumble after her work.

It may seem what I’ve described is quite a mystical process. I think it is. Authors who reject the Allen Wrench Approach are today’s mystics. The mystics and prophets and lovers of history have often been called fools. Perhaps we should, with Ursula Le Guin, admonish ourselves: O foolish writer! And then, when we’ve admitted our folly, it is time to look out that window again to our own imaginative gardens.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Creative Writing, Fictional Worlds, Memorable Quotes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to O Foolish Writer: The Living Reality of an Author’s Work

  1. dalefurse says:

    Reblogged this on Shared Blogg and commented:
    O foolish writer indeed.


  2. L. Palmer says:

    It might be nice if worlds could be built like Ikea furniture… but, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.


  3. jubilare says:

    “It may seem what I’ve described is quite a mystical process. I think it is.” I think so too. May we be wise fools.


  4. Pingback: The Forgotten Posts: Blogs that I Liked But Apparently No One Else Did, or An Encouraging Read During a Difficult Writing Period, or, Longest. Title. Ever. | A Pilgrim in Narnia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.