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

writing_wednesdaysThis post is part of an ongoing series Called Writing Wednesdays. This is repost of an earlier blog for those of us foolish enough to walk down this path. Previous blogs include:

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 a recent 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.
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11 Responses to O Foolish Writer: The Living Reality of an Author’s Work #WritingWednesdays

  1. jubilare says:

    “It may seem what I’ve described is quite a mystical process. I think it is.” I agree. 🙂 The times when, as Lewis says, I have to invent to fill in the gaps, are the times when my writing feels brittle, flimsy, thin.
    When I look at the stories forming, I sometimes think about what criticism will fly. I don’t TRY to think about this, but perhaps it does serve the purpose of making me look at the fabric from different angles. Anyway, I wonder if I will be criticized because characters do this, or characters aren’t that, because someone else has a different idea of how it should be (some of which is inevitable to anyone who dares write and publish). I know some people will fail to understand that I can’t bend the characters or story to fit some designed pattern without tearing out their souls and hollowing out their world. Saying “I didn’t make so-and-so do such-and-such, I just wrote it” will ring false to any who don’t understand what you just voiced.

    That’s not, of course, to say that writers hold no responsibility for what they write. There is, I think, a point at which it is cowardice to say “I have no control of this story” because, after all, we wrote and sought to publish it. But the process of subcreation is far more complex than having a series of ideas and stringing them together. 🙂


    • That’s exactly it, totally. I remember when a little boy died in my last high fantasy novel. Crushing and difficult and I had 100 different ways I would go–including the argument that it was too symbolic, too sacrificial. But I had to write it. I am still responsible, but there is an authenticity in the writing, a synchronicity that is what I think is the mystical element.


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  3. Fantastic post. I’ve also heard writing described – by a poet, I can’t recall her name – like catching a wave. It comes at you suddenly, and your job is to position yourself to catch it as it rolls by, or else you’ll lose it forever when it crashes onto the shore.


    • That’s a nice image, though it is sometimes like trying to capture a butterfly! But yes, the wave comes, and we bend ourselves entirely to its coming. I’ve thought of writing as a handglider: the dive off the cliff at the right moment to right the gust of wind to its end. To say gravity does the work is is to miss all that it is intuitive and intentional about the glider’s form.


  4. L. Palmer says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who builds from the story up. Many times I have to pause in the draft to build in certain things, but then keep going. Once I finish the draft, there are certain things in the world that feel like, “Of course that was meant to be there.”


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