Write What You Don’t Know, Part Two
One of my earliest mentors was a writer named Paul Rink. (He’s on pages 111 and 112 in The War of Art.)
Before I knew him, Paul lived in Big Sur. This was during the time when Henry Miller was a major personality there. Their families lived on Partington Ridge. Every morning Paul used to shepherd the children of the neighborhood down to the school bus stop on Highway One. He stayed with them till the bus came.
To pass the time, Paul had a game he played with the kids (You can read about this in Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.) Paul would tell them a story that carried on from day to day. He made up the plot on the spot. Paul would get his hero into unbearable, cliff-hanging fixes. The deal with the kids was that if at any time they couldn’t stand the suspense, they could call out the magic word—“Inchconnecticut!”—and that would save the hero.
Paul would surreptitiously glance up the highway till he saw the school bus approaching. Then he would crank up the suspense so that the kids were just about to cry out, “Inchconnecticut!” (They didn’t want to, of course, because that would end the story for the day.) Then at the last excruciating moment, Paul would say, “Ah, here’s the bus. We’ll pick up the tale tomorrow.”
The kids would all groan. But they couldn’t wait for the next day to get back to the saga.
(In Big Sur, Henry Miller has “Inchconnecticut” as two words. Not so! Paul declares it was always one.)
All this is long way of saying again
Write what you don’t know.
Paul didn’t know what was coming next in his story. He didn’t lie awake the night before plotting out the tale for the next day.
He winged it.
Paul entered that magical realm wherein dwell improv comedians, off-the-cuff banquet speakers … and you and me.
Writers of fiction.
One other entity abides in this favored province.
I asked Paul if he every ran out of hair-raising predicaments to get his bus stop characters into.
“Never,” he said. “Some twist would always occur to me.”
When George R.R. Martin started with Daenerys Targaryen, he had no idea who she would turn out to be or what adventures she would have. How could he? There was no Daenerys Targaryen.
What did he do?
He made it up.
He wrote what he didn’t know.
And, sure enough, from some mysterious quadrant of the imagination, from some dimension of reality that has nothing to do with reason or logic or rationality, a brilliant, charming, scary, funny, heart-stopping saga unfolded.
If George R.R. can do it, so can you and I. (As George R.R. would be the first to testify.)
The field is identical for us as it is for him.
The goddess will fill our outstretched palms just as she filled his.
All we have to do is show up and
Write what we don’t know.
Two thoughts, the first one keying on Daenerys and the other characters in GoT: I dig how George RR Martin takes them on their own arcs between hero and villain. And HOW could you map that out all at once? Seems like the only way to do it would be wading into the dark with a flashlight that’s sometimes bright and sometimes dim. Daeny on an arc from victim to hero to (potentially) a villain and tyrant. Jaime from villain to victim to hero to (potentially) back to villain as he forsakes love and redemption and flees back to Cersei. I can picture these characters evolving, and George RR not knowing fully where they were going, and just following along to find out, himself.
Another Martin — Andy Martin — hung out with Lee Child for year, sitting over his shoulder while Lee drank gallons of coffee and smoked cartons of smokes while writing his 20th Jack Reacher novel. In this article, Andy writes: “But I can put my hand on heart and say… that Lee Child is fundamentally clueless when he starts writing. He really is. He has no idea what he is doing or where he is going. And the odd thing is he likes it that way.” And…
“He doesn’t plan. He doesn’t premeditate. He loves to be spontaneous.” And…
“…he would be bored if he knew what was coming next.” And…
Andy Martin ends this article, talking about reading Lee’s work-in-progress: “I had to keep stopping because he kept stopping. Because he really had no idea what was coming next. ‘Why did you stop there?’ I asked him one day, feeling he hadn’t really written enough for that day. ‘I had to stop there,’ he said. ‘I have no idea who that guy in the Cadillac is.’”
Ain’t this a great example of “writing what you don’t know”?
These posts (and comments) give me hope. How does George R.R. Martin invent the Dothraki and their language and then kill most of them on one night, blades ablaze? It’s all fantastic and wonderful and a demonstration of the power of story, to enthrall and to teach.
That’s a good scene to pick, Jule. I just went back to watch that scene again. Fearsome, ululating horse-warriors charging with flaming arakhs under cover of artillery. The ranks in reserve watching the flames blink out one after another. Then silence. The looks on their faces of “what happened? what does this mean?” Then distant snarling. It was blood-chilling and masterful and more terrifying than watching the dead pile over the walls.
I’m thinking how this scene is a good illustration of what SP is saying up there about “cranking up the suspense.” No scene of clanging broadswords will induce more dread than the bladder-voiding, knee-quaking terror of “what’s out there in the dark?”
Joe, yes! Those flames blinking out was the most terrifying way to show the devastating loss. I found myself holding my breath. I also appreciated the juxtaposition–thousands die in a wide shot, Arya scrambles in a library, hordes come over the walls, Sansa and Tyrion hide behind a crypt. Fantastic filmmaking, wonderful storyetlling.
Yeah, Jule. In that recent episode, how they did three different genres: suspense, then horror, then action/adventure. I like sticking around at the end to hear them talk about “Inside the Episode.” I like looking under the hood.
Beautiful…and immensely valuable…as always.
I am somewhat confused. Weren’t we encouraged to keep a notepad near the bed to write down inspirational ideas that would pop up without warning, to hang the story like clothes on a clothesline in succession, don’t write the story until you know the ending and the universal-write what you know?
I never am without the need for reminders to trust. In the writing realm, this means show up and start – even when there seems to be no purpose, even though I feel totally inadequate and clueless. Thank you so much, Mr. Pressfield.
Great stuff. Sad to think that Paul would likely be arrested today for standing at a bus stop telling children stories…
Very inspiring today, and a great reminder to just show up. Thank you!
Wonderful inspiration and reminder. Show up and the muse, goddess will show up.
OK, a little more uptown. The poet Billy Collins, who some people (they know who they are) think is too light weight, said that if he knew ahead what a poem’s ending was going to be, he wouldn’t write it, or words to that effect. Even poets. Can you imagine?
It’s fun believing in our magic. Thanks for the reminder!
Well first thing is I’ve checked out these three books from my library: Do The Work, Turning Pro and The War of Art. I had to wait to get the last two but now all three are underway. Great books!
Secondly, todays post on Writing Wednesdays reminds me of how each night while putting my daughter to bed she would request a story about Bedford a little dog I made up. I must have made up a hundred tales about this mischevious little dog and she loved to hear about Bedford’s day and mischief. I have no idea where the content came from.
Like the bus stop stories it was all fiction but somehow the stories just flowed.
Pablo Picasso said a similar thing – if you know what you’re going to paint, why bother. Having said that, when it comes to long form storytelling I plot to the nth degree. But for short form, I wait till deadline day and then hit the ground running. I’m not going to waste a year (or years as the case may be, and has been) on a novel that because I didn’t plot I’m going to have to rewrite – three times!
Love, love, love this!
I’m a grandmother and this post moves me immensely.
Great way to drive home the point:
“Write what you don’t know.”
I am so grateful for this. I feel bombarded on all sides by the demand to O-U-T-L-I-N-E. I don’t. I sort of channel my books. It’s a whole different part of the brain, a whole different process, and my readers love what gets birthed. Writing this way is a form of spiritual practice that nurtures and fulfills me. I’m happy to be in this tribe!
Came across this clip this morning, an interview of Donna Tartt: “If there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader.” Seems to fit in this thread.
Oh jeez… this is great:
“How do you write?”
“In a very confused way. When I first begin writing a book, it doesn’t look like a book. It’s all sorts of disorganized notes all over the place. It’s very messy. I start out with notes I’ve taken in tiny notebooks. I write all the time. Some of these things will suggest something larger. And I have to trust in my subconscious that the things are linked, but I don’t know how. If you sit there long enough… that’s where the diligence and persistence comes in.”
Donna Tartt: “If I’m waiting in the doctor’s office and I’m bored, I’ll recite [WB Yeats] ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ to myself.”
“Recite it to me.”
She takes a breath and begins:
“That is no country for old men…”
And she goes on. Line after line. Extraordinary.
Few authors were more planful and organized than JRR Tolkien. 15 years to write the Lord of the Rings, and so deliberate that he created columns of notes about where each group of characters was under the full moon on a certain day in the month! But in an interview or a letter that I read, I remember Tolkien telling someone that one day Faramir just walked out of Ithilian into the story and he had no idea why he was there.
I’ll give “Tolkien” a try, now in theaters:
I may be the only one here who has not followed GOT and has no wish to. Lol.
(I am enthralled by BBC’s “Unforgotten”.)
Here’s another log to throw on the “write what you don’t know” fire. From a recent TC Boyle interview:
“In taking the notes and thinking about it for months and months—as a journalist you’d figure out how you’re going to organize your book, where to start, what your thesis will be. Doesn’t work that way with me. I am just absorbing material, and in the process I find characters, and then the characters begin to talk to me and I follow them. It’s just day by day, it’s a day by day process. That’s why I love doing it because it’s always a discovery. If I already knew what it would be, it would be less interesting to do it.”
One more? Road pop? (It used to be like this when I was drinking.) Something I listened to just now while walking. From “How Aaron Sorkin Wrote The Social Network”:
“You know you don’t know what you’re doing if the lines are coming out like honey dripping from a jar. There’s a line here, and then you gotta wait a half an hour, and the next line… STOP. Put it down. You don’t know what you’re doing yet.”
I am also a budding writer. Sometimes, I am hesitant in what I do because I am afraid of the community’s opinion. I am not only a fiction writer, but I also do research. It’s hard to write what you don’t know. However, I organize and gather information to be a conscious author. Also, on my way to becoming a writer, I get help from https://edubirdie.com/edit-my-paper because here I met the writing experts who edit my papers so I do not have to worry about the final details. I am working hard on my dream and hope to achieve my goal one day – to be a known and respected literary man.