Sometimes people wonder to me where a writer's stories come from. Stories are everywhere. There’s no end of them.
I can’t remember where I got this image. It’s been my screen saver for a couple of months. I like it as a screen saver because having it means that each time I boot up, I pause for a moment before going along to email and think “Who are those guys?”
I don’t know yet who they are, where they’re headed in their boat, why they’re going that way, whom they left behind, what they’ll find when they get to their destination, and what problems they carry with them as they plow through the sea.
This image already is a story; I just don’t know what the story is.
I have ideas.
From the design of the boat and from her rig and sails, I can speculate about time and geography—perhaps 18th century, maybe Dutch.
From the apparent calmness of the two sailors, I speculate that this trip they’re on might be a routine cargo transfer—what cargo and, more importantly, will their delivery or pick up proceed as expected or will a problem occur? What might the problem be?
On the other hand, from their apparent indifference to the lack of trim of their flying jib, I speculate either that they may be engaged in some intense discussion or argument right now and have not noticed the lack of trim, or that a sudden squall has caught them by surprise. In either case, this illustration might be the snap-shot of a possible crisis—in human relations? In commercial expectation? In nautical competence?
Are the sailors men? I assume so—that’s a massive, unwieldy rudder and tiller to manage, and lots of sheets for trimming the boat’s five sails (only four of them set at the moment). Women could sail the boat, but it would be less common than for the sailors to be men. If the sailors are men, where are the women who fit into this picture—possibly below decks? Ashore with children? Nonexistent?
What are the ages and characters of the two men? Are they young and energetic and beginning a commercial or fishing career? Are they old and tired and rheumatic from endless cold and wet and wish this all were over? Is one older than the other and more experienced than the other? Did the younger marry the older’s daughter and angles to inherit the boat?
I’ve glanced at this image many times. Dozens of stories are there about the men, each of which could be told and probably never will be.
I used to write fiction when I desired to read a novel about a story such as any of those speculated above, and, since I couldn’t find such a novel, I needed to write it myself.
What stories excite you enough to write them out, taking the time and exercising the discipline to follow whatever literary path along which they take you?
Don’t allow 2019 to pass by without writing at least one of those stories through to its end.
My two cents.
[Sometimes I am approached by those who want to write a book. Often their excitement is delightful. When it is their first attempt, they may not be as alert to the difficulties of writing a book as I wish they could be. I don't want to discourage them, but I don't want them to be blind-sided either. I posted a piece like this a few years ago and thought I'd update it now because these encounters continue to happen.]
You came to me and said you want to write a book.
I applaud you. I’m excited for your excitement. May your excitement carry you through.
Yes, here’s one way to write a book. Sit down and write five pages each day for two months.
How hard can that be? Only two months.
It’ll take discipline, but in sixty days, you’ll have a manuscript that is 300 pages long.
My most recent book that I had published also came from a manuscript that was about 300 pages long. However—different from you—writing that book took me ten years!
The new book I am close to completing today has taken about two years, and that includes the six months I knocked off writing all together because I couldn’t figure out how to pay attention both to my family and to the book at the same time, for the benefit of each.
When you are done with your two-month manuscript, then I will be happy for you as a person.
I will be happy because evidently you are a person who has had a very strong sense of three things during your past two months. The first thing about which you have been strong was where your book came from inside of you. The second thing about which you were strong was where your book was each day, while you pushed it along, page after page. And the third and most important thing about which you were strong was where your book was going to end up--that is, what it is about.
That’s impressive; very.
I had none of those assurances while I wrote any of my four books. I thought I had, but I needed to do the books over and over again to work these issues out, especially the third issue--what is the book about?
You are able to work quicker than me; good for you!
However long it ends up taking you—whether two months or maybe three—one day, your manuscript will be done.
Or anyway you’ll think it is done.
Because it had better be done.
Because you really, seriously need it to be done.
You really, seriously need it to be done because your brain will hurt just as my brain hurts when I am done. My brain hurts with a hurt that isn’t assuaged by two fingers of bourbon and a night’s hard sleep.
My brain hurts because, having re-read my manuscript five times over again since I deemed that it was done, I still can’t tell whether it’s any good or not.
Maybe you’re different. Probably you are different because it only took you two months to write your 300 pages. It’s likely that you do know your book is good.
By the time I finish my new book, I will not want even to see one more word. Nor will I want to create anything. All I will want to do is to absorb.
Even the smallest act of creating will make my brain hurt. Instead of creating, I will desire to absorb that which has already been created…and not by me.
I would gaze upon that which is pure and upon that which, being pure, is holy.
Perhaps I would gaze with the same intensity as that beachcombing, rusticating, French painter, Paul Gauguin, when he gazed, in the 1890s, on the maidens of the far South Sea. Those same maidens were the ones he used as icons while he wondered upon his canvas, wondering at his answer to the same three questions you mastered during your two-month book— Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
After my last book was published, we moved from Maine to the Blue Ridge of SW Virginia. We chased our first three grandchildren—now there’s another one here and one in New York, too.
Pretty soon after the move, I started out trying to capture the voice for my next book, the book I’m close to finishing now.
Took me a while to get it right—took writing three times deep into the book to decide what the voice is that should tell it—and now does.
Each writing-in brought me closer to understanding what my book is really about, since each of the now rejected earlier voices told the story in a lesser way than the present more robust and straight-forward voice does.
I envy you if you knew what your book was really about from the get-go. Lotta people don’t, like me.
Regarding your book—indeed you may finish your book in two months. People do. I hope you do, proving you know the answer to these three vital theological questions and can work your answers into the weft and warp of your tale.
Write it all down, my friend.
Write it all down and tell us about it.
We need to know.
Thank you...and--I mean this deeply--may you prosper!