Writers who admit to having more than a hunch as they launch a new essay, story, or book nevertheless are often paradoxical in their advice about initial composition: they may have a plan before writing, a sketchy outline and a destination—even the exact ending, word for word—but say their powerful material is discovered en route as they veer into the intuitive realm of the brain.
Perhaps it is simply that, as the late Donald M. Murray observed, writing creates thought as well as captures it. Some of the exciting surprises, the stuff you didn’t know you knew, may exist buried from conscious knowledge. And some of the magic may arise from writing itself: one sentence sparks another. Wherever it originates, discovery in writing is itself an addictive mystery.
In an interview with Diana Hume George in Chautuaqua, Dinty W. Moore, whose most recent book is the memoir Between Panic and Desire, says, “If you want to write anything worth the effort, the cognitive part of your brain is the enemy—you have to trust the inexplicable, the instinctual, the impulsive—you always want to get back there—it’s where all art comes from.”
Moore continues, “Really, anything I’ve ever written that endures beyond the month or so after it comes out of the printer is from that place, from finding secrets inside of myself that are as much a surprise to the writer as they might be to the reader. . . . To me, craft is structuring and making sense of primal insight without destroying what is so alive there.”
In Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, the novelist says his beginnings are uncalculated, searching: “Then I find a voice or an image or some idea or feeling—and the true work begins. . . . The act of composition is a series of discoveries. You find things just as you turn the corner. Eventually you reach the stage where it becomes an editorial, cerebral act as much as an intuitive thing. The further along you go, the more inevitable the course of the book.”
Outlining after writing an essay has worked well for me. A jot outline to begin, then a simple grocery list of what’s there, to see patterns and connections, holes and repetitions. Again, Don Murray, who wrote Pulitzer-winning newspaper editorials, magazine articles, poetry, and fiction, advocated post-writing outlines in his useful books, which include: A Writer Teaches Writing; Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem; and The Craft of Revision.
I would not think of writing a whole book without a preliminary structure, though; who knows what Doctorow actually does after he hits his sweet spot and gets more “cerebral.” In her superb book on craft, Write Away, novelist Elizabeth George says she’s by temperament very organized and needs an extensive plan on paper so that she feels free to create. She makes her exciting discoveries (regarding plot, theme, and what she needs to research) in early analyses she writes on each of her characters. As she writes her first draft, more inspiration strikes: unforeseen material “will emerge.”
To me, discovery implies even more than tapping unforeseen springs: it suggests content that cannot be explained. Not because the writer is withholding answers, but because she doesn’t have them. After all, the things we think about our whole lives are things we cannot explain. The secrets and mysteries. Or we learn that our understanding was partial and temporary, that the insights change as we do. Look at the lively art children make—paintings, poetry, vignettes—and what does a child “know” compared to an adult? Maybe enough for art. Adult writers add craft and endurance and experience, but I wonder if in essence they’re merely rediscovering childhood’s experience of wonder and mystery.
In my next post I’ll explore the link between discovery and craft, specifically narrative structure, and how conscious craft might foster intuitive art instead of seeming to be in tension with it. Craft’s highest role may be in helping writers find their true subjects, those areas they can’t neatly explain but can explore.