I just closed a production of Our Town, in which the Stage Manager asks, “How do such things begin?” of Emily and George’s eventual marriage. This question has been echoing through my mind a lot, lately, as I embark on a new writing project.
It all feels so familiar: the empty pages of the beginning of a novel filling me with a mixture of excitement, and self-doubt, and dread. This stage of the process, has, in the past, taken me years of brainstorming and working through writer’s block, and scribbling in notebooks, and daydreaming on New Jersey Transit.
But now, as I begin my next novel, I realize that I have learned something vitally important:
The only way to write a book is to write a book.
This is both beautifully simple and excruciatingly difficult. But what I’ve learned, is that there is no way to know what the story is, or who these characters are, until I’ve written them. For me, this looks like: Twenty MS-Word documents saved as Untitled1, Untitled2, etc. It is about finding one thing, or two things, that are true. And once I know those true things, another true thing can be born—and therein comes the momentum, and the draft I can eventually save as “Untitled Novel Draft.”
For my third book, now finished, there are ten or so such documents that I was playing around with before I started in earnest. And while they are mostly awful, and vacuous, and will never see the light of day—there are some truths there. Almost every document featured a sister who would play a large role. Every document had my protagonist wearing old boots and my protagonist obsessed with the colors of the sky. Sometimes there was fire, sometimes there was a party, sometimes there was a hospital—but the sister, the boots, the colors- these remained. And eventually, my novel was born, based only on these three truths, and a feeling, deep down in my stomach, that said yes, this is right.
On first drafts, Anne Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”
And so, here I am again, feeling around in the dark. Writing truly terrible things, quieting self-doubt, waiting for truth.