On writing, getting lost, and driving with your headlights on

“Writing is like driving at  night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fear of getting lost.

I’m not sure exactly when it started. Maybe that time when I was in elementary school, about five, when both Mom and Dad left me behind at church. Each thought each other had me, both went home, and I was left to curl up in the playground fort, hug my knees, and cry.

They never forgave themselves for that one. I did, but the memory of it still sits deep to this day.

The fear of getting lost followed me into my teenage years, especially when I first started driving. Back then, the GPS had only just come out on the market and was too expensive, which meant I had to find my way  the old-fashioned way. I was terrified to drive to places I had never been, and the mere thought of it would turn me into a jittery mess. Mini-panic attacks were not uncommon. I’d beg my parents to come with me and, if it wasn’t possible, I’d go over the directions at least ten times and study the map for a good twenty minutes before departure.

Even when my father purchased me a GPS as my high school graduation present, the fear didn’t go away. What if the maps weren’t accurate/up to date? What if I got turned around in the boonies in the middle of nowhere? What if I got lost in a place with no streetlights, no signs, and no way to find  the road back home?

All of which, to my abject horror, did eventually happen. More than once, in fact. I seem to have a knack for getting lost. And I can still taste the copper on my tongue, feel the dull ache between my heart-battered ribs, and recall the pale whiteness of my fingers wrapped around the steering wheel as I struggled to find my way.

Thanks to a better GPS and slightly better coping skills, those moments of breathless panic are fewer and further between. But each time I hop in the car to drive somewhere new, I still feel this little twinge of nervousness – the slightest uptick in my heart rate – when I pull out onto the road.

Maybe that’s why Doctorow’s “Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” quote never sat well with me. Driving was terrifying. The dark was terrifying. The absence of sight…horrific.

And yet, as I move into my second year of working on my WIP, the one I started in my second semester of grad school (then restarted in 3rd, 4th, and I’m re-working yet again now that I’m on my own), I’m beginning to realize that driving in the dark with nothing but my headlights is exactly what I’m being called upon to do.

In my last semester at VCFA, A.M. Jenkins gave a wonderful lecture on that well known adage of “Character drives plot.” She gave us friendship bracelets and told us to wear them every time we wrote. The bracelets were totems, reminders that we were supposed to tell the characters’ stories: not our own.  And if we told their stories, though we might not “know” how those stories would end, the characters themselves would eventually lead us there.

The idea of taking on such a writing style was unsettling to me. I’m a planner. An organizer. A strategist. A map it out then make it happen kind of girl. The prospect of letting my characters emotions, wants, and needs move the plot was every bit as frightening to me as driving alone in the dark.

So I resisted.  I plotted. And my writing turned to shit.

But then, something strange happened one day. I decided to just free write, much in the way I had in Martine Leavitt’s Generative Workshop (where the first pages of this WIP were born). I thought about my character. I thought about what she was feeling. I thought about what she wanted.

And I closed my eyes. And wrote. And the weirdest things happened.

A sense of place, or “MA” as Tim Wynne-Jones would say, crept slowly into my novel. I could suddenly taste, touch, and feel the world my character lived in.  Emotions she had buried, deep beneath layers of cynicism and toughness, came bubbling to the surface. Her relationships with her parents became clear, with her lover became clear, and – for the first time in a long time – it finally all felt real. I quit mapping. I stopped staring at the GPS. I just turned on my headlights and drove.

And it was beautiful.

This realness has taken a toll on my current WIP: I’ve had to almost completely rewrite eight of my first ten chapters, kill numerous darlings, and cut over 40 pages from what had been the tail-end of my WIP. The character’s motivations have changed…which means the story has changed…which means I have no idea how it will end. In essence, I’ve had to start completely over: all the way back to square one. Which is why – unlike the rest of my classmates who have finished drafts, agents, or book deals, – I’m on my 5th first draft.

It’s terrifying. It’s crazy. But the writing is so much better.

I’m more than a little panicked about the fact that I no longer know how the story will end. Will the plot be cohesive? Will the characters be believable? Or will it just be a jumbled up mess? I don’t know.

But instead of being miserably stuck and hating every word on the page, I’m moving forward. I’m driving – with nothing but my headlights on. And I’m trusting, with my characters serving as the GPS, I can make the whole trip that way.



Filed under Fiction, Revision, writing, writing life, YA

8 responses to “On writing, getting lost, and driving with your headlights on

  1. Love the Doctorow quote and the fact that you had such an epiphany as scary as it’s been. Driving in sunlight doesn’t take much courage; driving in fog does. I’m looking forward to seeing the beauty you create in this manuscript.

  2. Thanks, Linda. Still feeling a bit intimidated by the whole thing…but I’m hopeful.

  3. Great post. I particularly loved reading this because I have the opposite problem. I’ve always loved getting lost. I’d get in the car just knowing that my sixth sense would guide me at some point. Friends and relatives would ask if I used “the force” and I’d say, “of course!” It never failed me. Until it came to writing. I didn’t have roadmaps. I expected it all to come together by just following my characters and instead I was all over the place. I needed structure, maps! So now, I use my plot maps to keep me on the right track. They keep my scene cogs turning so the story moves in one direction.

    • Nicole, that’s too funny. I started off using plot maps, outlines, etc….but it ended up sucking the soul out of my writing…because I tend to get so focused on structure that I get overwhelmed by it. 🙂 Funny how unique we all are…both in our styles and writing lives. Looking forward to seeing yours when you’ve got it finished! 😀

  4. Shawna Lenore Kastin

    Thank you so much for writing this! I, too, hate not knowing where I’m going and have tried to plan things out, but I often end up getting so wed to certain plot points that the story loses elasticity if that makes sense. Also, I get bored because I know what happens already. But now I really want to go do some free writing and get to know my characters more…

  5. I find that’s what I’m resorting to as well….Free writing, that is. My writing really always is at its best when its in that raw, organic, unfiltered state. Yes, I may have to do some editing later, but I feel like the emotional authenticity is strongest when I let go and just…well…go. 🙂 Hard for us planners/perfectionists to do….but helpful, I think.

    • Shawna Lenore Kastin

      Yes! Oh man, so hard for me to let go, too. I am such a perfectionist and I always get too caught up in the language. BUt I agree with you about emotional authenticity being the strongest when you just let go. I can’t wait to see what comes out of this new direction for you 🙂

  6. Food for thought! I’m the same as you, I’m a planner, an outliner. Recently, I dipped my toe in the pool of going at it without any plan for a short story, and as you say it was amazing, the writing flowed, it was quite a high. I haven’t managed to replicate that since, I’m still struggling to let go of my plans and outlines, like a kid gripping the edge of the pool, but I’m hoping that I’ll learn to swim soon.

    Happy for you that you’ve managed to let go, inspiration for the rest of us still clinging on to that edge!

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