Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How to Get There: Thoughts on Writing Stories

Before I became a writer, I was a computer programmer. In many ways the two professions are remarkably similar: long hours of isolation, attention to detail, and the ability to process and consider multiple threads of information at the same time. Computer programming might seem like an almost mathematical kind of profession – you’re essentially writing instructions to be executed by a machine, a computer. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. A generic computer program has, on one side, the inputs: the data from a source (e.g. keyboard input); and on the other, the outputs: reports, data feeds to another program, or calculated results. Everything in between, the code, is a black box, a cipher to the outside environment. Inside that black box there are a thousand ways to get from the inputs to the outputs, from the beginning to the end.

I write stories in the same way I wrote computer code. With stories, the inputs include characters, setting, and plot. The outputs could be what happens, the events of the story, or a transformation of some kind. I want to discover that transformation when I’m thinking about the story, not when I’m writing. Writing is too hard, too much work to end up somewhere I don’t want to be. It would be like coding a computer program without knowing the outputs. I want to write towards something, some goal I know about. I believe in the axiom: Begin with the end in mind.

Maybe this kind of approach makes the writing more calculated. I don’t know. There are plenty of writers who write to discover the characters and their story; who end up with something wonderful. But the consequences of failure for that technique are dire. I abhor stories that leave me in the desert without water, or abandoned at the side of the road, or even recumbent in some palatial estate – all with the word “so?” on my lips. Asking the storyteller “Why did you bring me here? It’s one thing to do this with a twenty-page short story, quite another to write 300 pages of a novel. Writing the novel is a long and arduous process. What happens when you get to a place where you can’t quite figure out the ending and your creative energy is gone? Read Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird if you want an insight from the writer’s side.

That said, there are as many ways to write a story, to discover a story, as there are writers. In some of the writing workshops I’ve been in, the instructor will create three grab bags: one for place, one for names, and a third for verbs. You reach your hand in and pull out: TRAIN STATION, MARY, and DANCE. Thus, your writing assignment is to create a story about someone named Mary, dancing in a train station. Give this assignment to a hundred writers and, of course, you get a hundred different stories. Yet, for each story, the inputs are identical. Discovering the outputs, now there’s the key, the creative separation that imagination can bring; and the difference between writing and computer programming. With stories, the writer creates the ending.

I’m not a big fan of outlines, though I understand their value. I like the free flow association diagrams whose purpose is to encourage your subconscious. Books about writing are full of ideas on how best to create a finished story and each writer has to find a technique that works for them. Terry Brooks, the fantasy writer, generates an outline, then checks each new idea for the story against the outline to make sure everything works out. Though I don’t use outlines, I do need to know the ending for a story. Then everything in the story leads there. I’ve never discovered those endings when I’m writing. For me the breakthroughs have come when I’m walking or running, or those few minutes before sleep when logical mind is diffused. Something, perhaps, about endorphins.

In the final analysis, we, as writers, aren’t saving the world, except maybe in some indirect way. What I reach for in my own stories and hope for in the stories of others is that when I come to the last page, the last paragraph, the last word, I went through something: a rainstorm, an earthquake, a car wash. And that the world looks a little different on the other side.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

1 comment:

"Carly Dawn Kickslaw" said...

This is fascinating. Thank you!