Most writers find out what they have to say as they are saying it. We journey rather than travel and allow our destinations to be modified by the journey. If we are too sure of our destinations, we may rush past what might be the most interesting ideas or enthralling images in a piece of writing. If we do rush past them, of course, we don’t bring them into being, and therefore they never exist. How, then, can we recognize opportunities to explore what could be important if we only thought to write it?
There are two acts of recognition that lie inside this conundrum: the recognition of possibility and the recognition of worth. The first precedes having written, the second follows it. The first is unplanned, the second deliberate. The first is like braking your car and turning onto a narrow dirt track off the highway because something—a feeling of mystery or sense that the track looks like other inviting tracks—has struck you. The second is like coming over a rise on that track and finding a beautiful lake, a secluded restaurant, or a friendly looking hitchhiker holding an axe: something the value of which you will decide after experiencing it.
In training ourselves toward a predisposition to find what hasn’t yet been made, it is useful to think of writing as an interplay between temporal and eternal time: chronological and forward moving, or mythical and circular. For contemporary writers raised with clocks and schedules and the beginnings of sports practices and their whistled ends, it is easy to fall into the notion of time as temporal only. Yet even the most chronological-seeming story loops and circles into myth or demi-myth.
What could seem more chronological, for instance, than sportscasting, which, on its face, is nothing but telling what is happening as it is happening? Yet the story of a sporting event relies on tension like any narration does. A novel is a long, sustained tension (will Ahab get his revenge on Moby Dick?) with other tensions circling in its wake (will Starbuck oppose Ahab’s quest?). Even sporting events of the most flowing kind contain periods of tensionless time (a soccer ball being dribbled upfield without challenge), while more episodic games like baseball or football operate on mere seconds of tension, the rest of their time being spent preparing for them.
The best sports announcers recognize when tension on the field—the temporal story of the game itself and its outcome—lapses and so opens up opportunities for the exploration of eternal time. In the minutes between a strikeout and the next pitch, a baseball commentator may go anywhere in time and space, perhaps comparing the pitcher to a great pitcher from the past, or putting the game into seasonal context, or noting how the team resembles a team from forty years ago. The commentator is essentially mythologizing the game, turning it from a singular game with a singular outcome into a game that lies in relation to other games, or history itself, or the meaning of sports. When there is no tension on the field, poor sportscasters blab, but great ones use eternal time to recontextualize and mythologize.
As a model for writers, sportscasting can be a reminder to be more sensitive to opportunities for eternal time in our work. In her morning talk during the 2017 RWW residency, Marjorie Sandor noted that in the story of Abraham and Isaac, it was only when Abraham’s hand had been stopped by the angel that he “looked behind” and saw the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. It’s as if Abraham is so focused on his own vision of the ending of his story that he cannot notice anything suggested by that story’s unfolding. He cannot see what would have been plainly in front of his eyes had he stopped his determined climb up the mountain and turned around: a better, more generous story than the one he was creating.
Our words create innumerable meanings and possibilities. If we move only forward, those possibilities starve, and our stories or poems or essays move strictly toward their original, intended outcomes, which are necessarily narrow because our minds are unable to encompass the infinite possibilities the act of creation spins out. On the other hand, it is difficult to write without maintaining a sense of where we are going. Writing, then, invents itself out of the tension between our need to move forward in the temporal time of our works and our need to stop so that we can hear the whisper of the eternal moments contained in our words.
Once, while writing, I found my narrator saying, “I thought of suicide.” When I wrote it, that sentence meant only what it meant, and my intention was to march the story onward. The moment I wrote those words, however, I wondered what they contained: What does it mean to “think” of suicide? The question opened up an eternal moment. For several paragraphs I explored the ways my narrator’s “thinking of suicide” caused her to notice light poles she might crash her car into or pawnshops with their glass cases full of handguns. “Thinking,” it turned out, changed what she saw and led her to places she—and I—had not expected. I wrote her into visiting pawnshops and learning about guns and ammunition and talking with the clerks and other customers. As a result, I discovered that, though she had “thought” of suicide, she was not “suicidal,” which is a critical motivational difference. It was all a form of mythologizing or recontextualizing my own narrative, which helped me understand my character in a way I would not have had I not paused and allowed myself to meander onto that dirt track where all of this awaited, unformed until I formed it.
What kinds of habits might a writer develop in order to be more likely to recognize the call of eternal time unfolding from out of the temporal time of a story? I suggest these:
- Write close to the grindstone. When sharpening something, there is a moment when the edge of the blade has grown so fine it will not reflect. Light has been honed away. If you write with this kind of close, refined attention to your own words, not looking for the end of the story but trying to understand what the word or phrase you wrote right now bears within it, you will find yourself writing with a greater sense of wonder: Why did I write that and what else might it mean?
- Write out of rhythm. When you let language become rhythmic, you are necessarily responding to its “right now” elements. Your concern is for how the words you are producing fit with the words that came immediately before. You think less about their meaning relative to your “destination,” and more about whether the words work in the short term. Your words will become more active agents, more urgent and urging, more likely to call to you to ask what they contain.
- Retype. Retyping puts you in contact with your language in a way that word processing doesn’t. You have to actually reproduce the language. That remaking slows you down and creates conditions more conducive to wondering anew what the words suggest. Word processing contains an unconscious message that what has been written is a precedent that can be tinkered with but not reinvented. Retyping creates a radical equality between what you have written and what you might write and opens up the end of each sentence to new recognitions.
In general, try to develop a sense that what you have written contains meaning you couldn’t anticipate. Think of each word as a trapdoor over a rabbit hole containing eternal moments of strangeness. You’re walking on these doors. The catch might hold so that you step forward into your familiar, predicted world. But if you stand on that word a little longer, it might give way, and there you are, dropping vertically instead of walking horizontally. That’s where the Red Queen lives. She can be very weird, but she’s always interesting, and she does have things to tell you.
Kent Meyers is the author of a memoir, a book of short fiction, and three novels, most recently Twisted Tree, which won a Society of Midland Authors award and a High Plains Book Award, and was translated into French. The River Warren and Light in the Crossing were New York Times Notable Books, and The Work of Wolves won the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Award and an American Library Association Award. Meyers has published fiction and essays in numerous literary journals and magazines, including an essay in Harper’s Magazine on the search for dark matter. He lives in Spearfish, South Dakota, and teaches in Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop.