I Don’t Know What I Think Until I Write It Down

That statement may sound odd, but it’s true. Maybe it’s true of other writers, as well, that they don’t know what they have in them until they write it down. I’ve never asked. But I say this because, when I have ideas or notions or concepts or philosophical uncertainties, I try to craft them into stories. Not all stories get going this way, but when something starts out as an idea, ghostly and more an urge or a dream than an opportunity, it helps me focus on the problem by turning it into something dramatic and thus live it out, as it were, on paper.

To do that means to develop a conflict and personify the idea as characters. My tendency in writing stories is to craft plot-driven narratives with iconic or archetypal figures. No doubt some ideas don’t lend themselves well to this type of storytelling; probably there are ideas that would be better expressed in other ways, as songs or as paintings, as poems or as mimetic slice-of-life stories. Maybe this is why I hit dead ends at times when I write: I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, trying to express an idea that is basically a song into the long form of a novel. Are there such ideas? This may explain the built-in tension in some of my stories. Perhaps I am trying to put two colors together that were never intended to complement one another. That tie will never go with that shirt. That idea is a brown leather belt; it was never meant to complement a pair of black wingtips.

Still, one thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that, in a very real sense, I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it.

Some examples: When I was mulling over the idea that it would best if women ran the world, I put it into dramatic terms and wrote Seasons of the Moon. What resulted was a good story in which it became apparent, as I worked it out, that such a world might logically be rather rigid or conservative in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I envisioned a society that had developed as an extension of the natural world. The weak pups in the litter don’t survive or are not helped to survive, for example; trees are pruned to stay healthy and flourishing; women are regarded as the source of religion because women bring life into the world and nourish life. Men, as a group, do what they can to protect women as a group. We can get by with fewer males if it means that women live because that’s the way our species survives. Think of us as pack animals. My own preference is to live in a society much more liberal than this, but in writing Seasons of the Moon, I tried as well as I could to be honest to the idea I was exploring and so took it in the direction that the idea and story dictated.

A variation on this concept, I suppose, is when I write a well-crafted story about one thing but realize when the story is completed that I’ve actually been talking about something else. Magicians, which was published under the title The Fair Rules of Evil, is a good example of that. I wrote a good tight thriller about a young man, basically an orphan, who has to learn sorcery in order to try to save the lives of people he loves. He winds up having to confront a very real demon in the shape of a professional man who was responsible for his sister’s destruction and threatens the woman he intends to marry. Some years after the book was published, I realized that I was telling another story altogether with that plot and those characters: how those of us who have artistic gifts are basically aliens or sorcerers or supernatural creatures. How do we fit into a world that doesn’t recognize us or that is not comfortable having us around?

When I wrote The Fall of the First World, I thought I was inspired by history, myth, and philosophy. Characters seek the meaning of life, become embroiled in political conflict and international warfare, and barely survive the destruction of their world. I thought I’d written a big fantasy trilogy; a friend of mine read The Fall of the First World and said, This is the Sixties, right?

One more example. I still return to my story Sometime Lofty Towers, which I started in 1997 and which I still intend to complete. Why is it taking so long? Well, for one thing, I tried for several years to squelch my storytelling instincts and promote myself in other directions—a turning that is a story in itself. Part of it also is that I like what I’m doing with the story so much that I don’t want it to end, so if I work on it a little bit at a time, why, then I always have something enjoyable to come back to. And part of it is that the story is kind of an experiment. I am trying with it to illustrate that sword-and-sorcery fiction can be done in such a way that it must be taken seriously. I like sword-and-sorcery fiction—well-done sword-and-sorcery fiction—and I feel that if we approached it as a vehicle for serious ideas and combined that integrity with good writing, we would have a genre story that rises about its genre. This is a good thing, to have something that is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve seen it happen with Westerns and detective stories and romances; can it be done with sword-and-sorcery fiction? I suppose I wasn’t sure until I started writing Sometime Lofty Towers, but I am probably on the right track. But I won’t know unless I keep writing.

I think that life in its essence is exquisitely simple, but we are so driven to do rather than to be that we constantly get in our own way when it comes to appreciating the best that being alive can provide. Perhaps this is what I’m wrestling with when I have ideas that I try to form into stories. Perhaps for me, as unenlightened and restless as I am, the being is in the doing, so that I truly don’t know what I think until I’ve written it down.

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One Response to I Don’t Know What I Think Until I Write It Down

  1. Ted says:

    You’ve hit on a sterling verity of the impulse to create, Dave. And you’re corroborated by no less than W. H. Auden, who wrote, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” a quote that I’ve had posted over my writing desk for years. It reminds me that there’s no such thing as “writer’s block,” just the stumbling block of lassitude that keeps me from lassoing and setting down those rampaging thoughts that constantly thunder by (does the barn door to our thought processes ever TRULY close?). Nothing “sounds” brilliant or inspired up there today, so I give myself a pass on filling that blank page in order to examine those thought-bytes for potential storytelling value. And that’s where it all must begin, doesn’t it? “What if—THIS?” and “THAT really ticks me off, so—” They don’t tumble out as linear narratives. They need to be arranged like puzzle pieces.

    As for the concept of whether a particular idea would be best expressed in one form over another—that’s a fascinating line of inquiry. One would think a powerful motivating inspiration might avail a writer to produce a profound story, while a composer should be able to turn it into soaring musical poetry; an illustrator to capture its essence on a canvas. But would one medium clearly tower over the others in expressing the same fundamental idea?

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