[By Guest Blogger Elizabeth Tannen]
A couple of weeks ago I met with my adviser about my dissertation. It was, in a word, traumatic.
A year and half–midway through–the MFA program, I had finally decided that, rather than compile a bunch of vaguely connected essays and call it a day, I was going to set out to do the thing I came here to do: write a book. The family memoir I’ve wanted to write since long before I came here.
For a long time I convinced myself that, because of what I don’t know, I couldn’t write it at all: I tried writing it as fiction, but soon realized that’s not what I wanted to do. I wrote a twenty-page essay that I reasoned was all I could possibly produce on the subject.
And then I realized that was bullshit.
So I got permission from the necessary people and began to conduct interviews. For days I walked around campus feeling elated. I was going to write a book! You know, once I’d gotten all the information and knew what it was really going to be about.
And then I met with my adviser, Greg.
“I’m going to start doing interviews once a week!” I proudly pronounced.
“That’s great,” he replied, unimpressed. “And you’re writing, too, right?”
“What do you mean, writing? I don’t even know what I’m writing about!”
It was then that Greg turned my world upside down and transformed my excitement into sheer, unmitigated terror.
“You need to be writing every day,” he said. “Of course you don’t know what it’s about yet. You’re only going to figure it out by writing it. All the time.”
As a teacher of creative writing, I know this. All the time I tell my students that they shouldn’t know what’s going to happen in their stories before they’ve written them–things get discovered on the page. That’s the way writing works.
Which I tell you only to illustrate that one can know something, teach it, even, and still, when necessary–by which I mean when trying to evade writing, aka most days–completely, aggressively, totally unconsciously, forget it.
“I don’t understand,” I insisted to Greg, petulant and aggrieved as a hungry toddler with twenty minutes before snack. “How can I start writing when I don’t know what the structure’s going to be? Or what the scope of it is! Or the point of view!?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he shot back. “I could give you ten prompts right now.”
At which point he did, in fact, offer about ten writing prompts with which I easily could, and thankfully, have begun, to gather substantial writing material.
The other thing he did, which is often a thing he does, was to throw a book at me: this time, “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction,” by Stephen Koch
“You can borrow this until you take one look at it and realize you need it and order your own from Amazon the next day,” he said. Dutifully, I took it. And dutifully, I did.
Mainly because of this quote, with which I will leave you, and bid you good, if uncertain, writing:
“‘But–you may say–’I don’t even know my story yet.’ My answer is: ‘Of course you don’t know your story yet.’ You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whold world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it, then you know it. It is not the other way around. That may sound illogical, but to the narrating mind, it is logic itself. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves–even to their tellers–only by being told.”