When some people describe their writing process, I swear it sounds like they need to go back on their meds or something. “My character told me that he was ___. ” “My outline called for ___ to happen, but my characters decided to go do something else instead.” “She’s telling me she’s a lesbian.” “I feel like the story already exists somewhere and I’m just transcribing it.” “And that’s when my heroine surprised me by jumping out the window.” (That last one is honest-to-comma a true example of something I heard one author say at a conference.)
I never know how seriously to take these claims. Are these people’s characters really in charge of the story? Because let me tell you, I don’t feel this way. My characters don’t tell me things. All the stuff that happens in my stories? Yeah, I make that crap up.
I have to confess that my reaction isn’t usually altogether positive when I hear this kind of author mysticism. But I’ve run into this way of talking about creativity from all corners, from published, award-winning authors on down, so it’s at least as legit as any other approach. So I hope I can forestall anybody taking offense at this by coming out and acknowledging that my reaction is very likely fueled by jealousy and insecurity. When I people talk about what their characters say to them, what I hear, accurately or not, is that writing is easy for them. You’re just transcribing a story? Jeez, how nice for you—I have to freaking work to come up with mine! I wish my characters would whisper solutions to my plot problems in my ear! In my jealousy, it tends to sound to me like people are bragging.
I think on some level I fear that the fact that this sounds alien to me is evidence that I’m not a real artist, or that I’m not creative enough. Maybe if I were really meant to be a writer, writing wouldn’t feel like work to me. (Don’t get me wrong—it’s satisfying work. But it is work.)
On the other hand, maybe one person’s mysticism is another’s mundanity. It occurs to me that some of the things that I experience very likely can come across as that same sort of mysticism to someone else. For instance, I don’t agonize over what tense and point of view to write my stories in. When I get my premise, I’ll often immediately think of lines that I’d like to use to explore the idea, and whatever person and tense they’re in is generally what I’ll stick to for the story. A nice shorthand for all that? “My story tells me what tense and POV to use.”
Also, while I never feel like I’m transcribing, and while I claim to have sweated out every line and piece of plot, when I read back my stories later, I’m often surprised. That line’s nice—where the heck did it come from? What on earth made me morph this original story concept into this unrecognizably different plotline?
I can’t answer those questions. It feels like someone else wrote those things.
Does that make me a mystic too?