–Mary Coolidge Cost

As a weaver, when I sketch, then experiment with watercolors and work one or more small maquette versions of a tapestry, the concept changes and develops from a more or less general idea into something quite distinct. And it keeps right on changing until the finished tapestry, larger, more detailed and complex, is cut off the loom. I wonder if your experience as a writer is similar. Do you know from the outset where your stories and characters are going? Do they ever take on lives of their own and surprise you? And if they do, are they willful or tractable?

Mary Coolidge Cost, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Actually, I do sometimes know where my stories are going from the outset. Fairly often I have had the last line of a story when I begin. I’m not sure that’s always been good as it’s sometimes made me want to rush through the middle of the story, which is where most of the actual writing work is done. In those cases, I’ve had to be sure I give the story the time it needs to build and develop. Still, it’s exciting if I know the destination in advance. It makes writing something like planning a very good trip.

There are other situations when I know where I’ll be ending. Certainly, I had a general idea for Suite Harmonic because the storyline is tied to the information I had in John Given’s letters.  And I knew the largest portion of the book would end with the end of the Civil War, though I resisted shaping the book just to the war. I wanted to include both what went before and what went after, the story of a life. When I wrote Time Stamp, I knew from the outset that the story lines were going to finally merge at the time of Richard Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi. So I had the ending at the beginning.

But that is really the answer to a different question from what you’re asking, or at least the answer to only one of them—if I know where the stories and characters are going. Even if I have an idea of the narrative line, I don’t have any idea of what the different events are that will occur in a story and how that will affect my characters and their development. That is the sort of thing that only happens through the writing process itself. Even in Suite Harmonic, though I knew I was going to write the Battle of Shiloh, much of the scene is the small occurrences that make up John Given’s experience of the battle, and those were things I had to discover as I wrote.

Let’s see if I can think of an example of how this works in a short story. I’m trying to remember the way “The Temple of Amun” in Watching Oksana developed, and maybe this is the place where it would be useful if I had some organized system of old notes on stories. I don’t. I’ll just have to try to reconstruct the chronology from what I can recall. I do know that I started with the idea of writing about a man who enters a relationship with a much younger woman because she reminds him of his younger self and the way he very consciously constructed a more sophisticated version of himself. For some reason that I don’t remember, I decided to make Elliott O’Connell a civil engineer who had worked on some of the world’s biggest engineering projects. This became part of the story’s engine. His work became both an element of the story’s language and part of the story line. And I remember the kind of odd connections that can appear in writing a story happening with this one. At the time I was working on it, I was booking a trip to China through a travel agency. While the agent was on the computer, I went through some of the shop brochures. I found a couple for Egypt that struck me, and it became a work destination for Elliott in the story and also gave the story its title and defining metaphor. It was a matter of having disparate things link together in a usable pattern.

This is also the sort of thing that happened when I was writing Time Stamp, or at least the Maddie parts. Fairly often I needed to hunt for something on the Internet to answer a question about somewhere Maddie was going or something she was doing, and it would lead me to another website that offered a fact or an image that absolutely belonged in that part of the story. So much information I could use kept popping up that I sometimes thought of myself as being on “receive.” It was uncanny, and customary only in the sense that when I’m focused on something, my sub-conscious mind very often finds new connections from everyday things. It’s not so much the story changing as I work on it as it is the story being created, built piece by piece.

As a younger writer, I used to feel that my characters could surprise me a lot. Certainly, in writing about the young girl in “Treasures,” I don’t think I envisioned her becoming a sort of “antique” from the outset. Possibly I did, but I don’t think so. The story is all about the intersection of the things we acquire and value with the lives we live. In that sense, I think the story’s development had a certain inevitability about it that revealed itself to me as I wrote it. As the girl of the story acquired objects from the past and learned to use them, she recreated herself as a sort of nineteenth century figure. That became the full manifestation of her nature.

Really, I think for me, the way characters can sometimes seem to take their own heads in a story—and they sometimes do—is really just their showing who they are. There’s an inherent logic to an action and I’m not aware it’s going to happen until it does, but it’s not unsettling. I don’t feel that the story is beyond my control. That kind of distress only happens when nothing about the story or the characters is showing me what’s next. I wonder then if I’ve wandered off on the wrong track. In a situation like that, it’s a real gift if it’s suddenly clear what a character is going to do. It’s not a shock or a sense that the character has become suddenly willful, but more a glove-fitting-hand kind of moment, a feeling that yes, obviously that’s what she would do in this situation. This happened with the last lines of “Swimming” in Watching Oksana. I was struggling with them. It was close but it wasn’t just right until one day I thought of Nora’s action that ends the story and realized I had it. It fit the story; it fit her.

In conjunction with these particular musings, I’ll say that I’m not a writer who believes strongly that a character has to be changed by the events of a story. I’m not that into epiphany moments. I tend to think that people generally stay who they are, that their essential natures are revealed more under stress but it’s just a heightened view of who they are all along, the leopard’s spots as it were. Even if a character commits what may seem a rebellious act as Nora does in “Swimming” when she refuses to grieve at the death of her husband, I think the story’s resolution simply shows that refusal as part of the complexity of how one woman grieves. Maybe that is what epiphany is—the impact of events so that, for at least a moment, identity becomes crystal clear. The circular action of “Moving” in Watching Oksana is another demonstration of a character reinforcing who he is. Jefferson Shalli basically ends up where he began.

The real heart of your question, though, goes to similarities in the artistic process from art to art. Though I’ve never written music or painted or sculpted or created a weaving, I suspect that process has similarities for many artists and writers. I certainly recognize the steps you describe in working on a tapestry. It’s part experiment, part discovery, part reading what you’ve made and realizing what the next step will be. I assume every artist or writer has false starts and painted over areas or rejected maquette versions, or deleted sentences and paragraphs, pages and sections, chapters. I think that’s the nature of making art. We wouldn’t need to do the work of writing or weaving if we knew in advance what all the side trips would be and how they would shape the destination, and what that destination would truly be. We’re putting things together to make something original and it can’t exist without all those steps of discovery. And, of course, we work at it so deeply because we want the resolutions along the way, and the surprise.


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