A meditation on how imagination, memory, and the self connect in the writing of fiction.
As a child I, like all children, loved small worlds. Model railroads, the fantasy of life lived on a small boat, tide-pools seen on rare visits to the ocean, or a world that came and went on one warm January day when a layer of ice melted in the alley behind the house, making a whole geography of rivers and tributary streams, down which a twig could sail an epic journey narrated by me. I loved a world I could see in one gaze, a world that would fit whole into my imagination, one in which nothing could make me suffer. A world too small for me to enter in my physical form, but into which I could transport my awareness as I would transport it into a book later, when I had to go back indoors. In the world of the melting, nothing terrible had to be present; it did not include what was waiting inside my parents’ house—no loneliness, no silent seething, no criticism, no disappointment. Just the journey, magically accelerated, from winter to spring.
This piece grew out of the “Writer’s Journal” from For Adam. In the course of writing that book I finally realized, contrary to what I had always hoped and assumed, that writing fiction is not an act of communication, or else communication is not what I once imagined. It seems to me that being clear on what we’re doing can only help in the making of art.
When I’m teaching writing, which I have done now for over thirty years, I talk constantly about a mythical being called “the reader,” as if we all knew who that was. But let’s face it: when I’m writing, I discover that “the reader” is the great mystery and problem of my parallel life during those same years, as a mostly unpublished novelist, a person who strives to make art works with words.
Making the claim that fiction keeps alive the capacity to have an inner life, perhaps even invents the idea of love. A longer version of this essay, more focused on teaching, appeared in How Writers Teach Writing, edited by Nancy Kline.
“Without literature, of course, we would have no knowledge of the meaning of love.”
I am the last person who wants to be told what love should mean, but there’s truth for me in Cheever’s audacious assertion. Truth for the reader, truth for the writer. What it says to me is that literature produces the crucial illusion: that we can share another person’s subjective world. In life outside of books, we all know that condition doesn’t prevail as much of the time as we would like; inside of books this condition is business as usual. Reading Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” we take for granted that we know what is in Gurov and Anna’s secret hearts; and though it is expressed in a way that Chekhov would probably have found unreadable, we take for granted the same thing about the protagonist of Donald Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising.” Even when Hemingway makes us guess at the characters’ subjective experiences, we still do guess, because we know without asking that fiction is the form in which we will become privy to the unspoken, the inexpressible. Often we know the thoughts and feelings more clearly than the characters who are having them, yet we don’t feel surprise at being offered such knowledge.
What the process of imaginative writing is like for me, from moment to moment. This piece first appeared in Many Mountains Moving.
Much has been written, and probably always will be, about writing as if it were something under the writer’s guidance. My purpose here, by contrast, is to walk reflectively around the outskirts of the creative faculty, knowing that it is outside myself, other than myself, and its working is impossible to describe. I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction, some of it published, for thirty years, and teaching writing for longer than that—being in the neighborhood while the creative power, on its own schedule, got some work done for me and others. It seems to me that after this long I can begin trying to say what it’s like to work in some sort of collaboration with that which I do not control.
A behind-the-scenes look at the writing of my novels