Thursday 3 January 2019

Slow writing

My 1975 notebook
When I was twelve years old, I wrote a novel called The Mystery of the Secret Passage. Much of it I wrote in our wartime house on a leafy Winnipeg street, where we had a crawlspace that was sun-warm in summer and furnace-duct warm in winter, smelled of old insulation and dust and had a small slatted vent where I could look out into our front yard and the sidewalk that ran past our house. I set up a makeshift desk with some boards, and in my memory, I sat on the floorboards and wrote. Having the desk made me feel like a real writer; it lent a certain commitment to what I was doing. I wrote the novel, suspiciously like a Nancy Drew novel, which I loved, in Hilroy exercise books. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I sank into the private world I was creating, not caring where the story was going or who might read it.

A page from Red Fox Road.
For my most recent novel,  Red Fox Road, I decided to allow myself this same luxury. I wanted to return to the simplicity and joy I found in writing when I was twelve. I wanted to close my ears to my own inner critic, and write something slowly, happily, word by word, just for the sheer fun of it. I had an idea that had captured my imagination: a girl on a family vacation becomes stranded alone in the wilderness when the family's GPS leads them astray. The idea was based very loosely on stories I'd read in the paper about mishaps with car's navigation systems. Also, my own little family had had a close call one day when we headed off on an off-road driving adventure, got lost, and couldn't retrace our steps because we didn't have enough gas.

I took out one of the notebooks I usually use for a journal, and began with the first sentence. It came easily and I didn't worry too much about whether it was the right sentence. It took me somewhere. And in writing this novel, I learned to pay attention to that feeling. Does this sentence take me somewhere? Is it where I want to go?

"In each act is the seed of the next." I'm not sure who to credit for that sentence; it's not my own, but it became my guiding principle. If the sentence I wrote took me somewhere I didn't want to go, I backed up, crossed it out, and wrote a different sentence. The wrong paths were usually ideas that I had imposed on the story, rising from some sense of obligation to include something. Apparently Warren Buffet has a tray on his desk labelled "too hard" and he puts ideas that he doesn't understand or has to work too hard at into that tray. My principle was similar. I wanted the story to roll along, to unravel like a road I was travelling down. I didn't want to impose too much of my vision on it in advance. I wanted to watch, almost listen for it. For me, the fun is in following the story, not having the story follow me. If I've set it up well enough, the story takes on a life of its own. It has its own intelligence, which is smarter than me.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck writes, "I sometimes feel that when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness." I would say that about the way I wrote as a child, and I'd say that it's when writing is at its best for me now. I feel a physical change in my body when I find that, a sense of inhabiting the world I've created. I dream about it, it's the first place I find myself if I wake in the night. I can hear my narrator's voice, I watch what she does, what she feels and thinks.

Writing by hand seems to help me find that. Slowed down, I'm both more careful, and less constrained. Maybe the slower, physical act of handwriting, the pen drawing letters on a thick new loaf of paper, helps me pay more attention. And in writing this novel in notebooks, I remember the twelve-year-old girl that I was, on an adventure without a certain outcome, just for the joy of it.