Writing a Book I Didn’t Know I Was Writing

In Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook, Richard M Eastman says: “You don’t begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers. Writing isn’t so much communication as creation. In a real sense, you don’t have an outlook on anything without first having written on it. This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn’t anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.”

Eastman’s discovery of outlook holds true for my fiction.  I know the story when I begin, I know the ending, and I know a few important scenes, which should mean that I know the whole story, but I don’t. I am not the same, my outlook is not the same, when I finish writing the story as when I began, so the story is not exactly as I intended. The creation process itself creates the change in outlook. Writing is all about the choices we make, and continue to make, all through the creating, editing, proofing. Sometimes I find that I’ve written a book I didn’t know I was writing. A Spark of Heavenly Fire was supposed to be the story of women who could barely cope during times of prosperity when everyone else was doing just fine, but they came alive and dazzled during dark times when everyone else could barely cope. That story is still there in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, but the overriding story is the story of love in all its guises: self-less love, self-love, friendship, romantic love, parental love, obsession.  This theme of love came about through the various elemental choices I made during the course of the book, and it makes novel strong, much stronger than it would have been if it remained simply the story of women who come alive in times of hardship.

And Eastman’s discovery of outlook especially holds true for my non-fiction. I wrote a book about grief, a book I didn’t know I was writing. After the death of my life mate/soul mate twenty-one months ago, I found solace in writing about his death and my grief, in blogging about it, in writing letters to him. And now, some of those writings have coalesced into a book that people have called “exquisite,” “profound,” “raw and real.” I wrote to help me come to terms with the soulquake I experienced after he died and with my continued grief. But what the book ends up being is a great love story, the story of a love that transcends time and physical bonds. He might be dead, my love for him is still strong.

I know what you’re going to ask, but no, the book isn’t published yet, but it should be released in March 2012. I’m putting the finishing touches on the book now, adding the few photos I have to further illustrate our life, and then it heads back to my publisher so they can add a cover and get it published.

One unintended benefit of getting the book published is that afterward, this blog will not be quite so schizophrenic. Part of the time I write about writing, the rest of the time I write about grief. The book will pull both parts of this blog together, and it will become a cohesive whole. I wonder if the book will do the same for me, help pull me together somehow, bridging two very different parts of my life — the part where I once shared a life,  and the part where I’m left alone to pick up the pieces of that shattered life.

Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

Malcolm: I’ve always liked the concept of life as a journey in which each of us walks as a seeker and/or a hero on a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. So, I appreciate the invitation to stop by your blog and talk about the writer’s journey.

Bertram: The mythic journey concept has infinite possibilities, both as a story structure and a metaphor for one’s life as an author. Do you make use of the mythic journey structure in your writing?

Malcolm: There are mythic qualities in THE SUN SINGER (2004) which is based on the hero’s path or the mythic journey as you call it. Ditto for the as-yet unpublished GARDEN OF HEAVEN. The upcoming JOCK STEWART AND THE MISSING SEA OF FIRE is unrelated to the others and is sort of a mystery/humor novel about a newspaper reporter.

Bertram: I like your image of writers as seekers walking a winding route to places we don’t yet know or understand. I often mention how hard writing is for me, but that’s because I don’t know how to write the books I want to write. I have to learn how to write each one separately as I’m writing them, and each takes me on a different journey.

Malcolm: My long-time mantra comes from author and teacher Richard M. Eastman’s book Style: Writing as the Discovery of Outlook (3rd edition, 1984):

“You don’t begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers. Writing isn’t so much communication as creation. In a real sense, you don’t have an outlook on anything without first having written on it. This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn’t anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.”

Bertram: That makes sense. For me, blogging especially is a way of discovering my outlook on whatever it is that I’m writing about.

Malcolm: This has been true for me whether I was writing a national register application, applying for a grant, writing a feature article or working on my novels, The Sun Singer (2004) or Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire (coming soon). In each case, I began with a body of knowledge and an opinion that were very different by the time I finished writing.

In terms of subject matter, do you find this to be true with your novels? I’m guessing that regardless of what you knew about pandemics, your understanding of them and their potential impact was much different after you wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire than it was when you were first thinking about writing the novel.

Bertram: My research into pandemics was actually quite extensive, and so was my research into the government’s response to such an emergency (I based my fictional response on actual executive orders that Clinton signed), so there wasn’t much difference in my understanding during the course of the book, but there was a big difference in my thoughts about what they want us to know and what they don’t. When I learned about Pingfan, the Japanese biological warfare installation where they did horrendous experiments on POW’s and nearby villagers, I thought I’d stumbled onto something really explosive. Yet, as happened to a character in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the very next novel I picked up used Pingfan as a setting. It got me to thinking about the nature of cover-ups, and many of the discussions in the last half of the book took place while I was writing the book.

Malcolm: We often hear that the writer’s journey has an inner and outer aspect. I see the outer aspect plot as it unfolds with a variety of characters, locations, and challenges. You chose Denver and pandemics for A Spark of Heavenly Fire and I chose the Montana Rockies of an alternate universe for The Sun Singer. Thinking of stories based on the hero’s path schema, from Star Wars to The Matrix to Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, the emotional, psychological changes and spiritual growth of the protagonist are viewed as more central and important than his thoughts, words and deeds. In mythic terms, the hero undergoes a transformation by undergoing the trials and tribulations of the outer journey. Robert Adams undergoes a transformation in The Sun Singer just as Jock Stewart is changed by the events in Sea of Fire. Do you feel this way about Kate Cummings and Greg Pullman?

Bertram: All the characters in A Spark of Heavenly Fire undergo transformation, especially the women. I always liked Washington Irving’s quote, and wrote the book using it as the theme: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

Malcolm: In my life, the deepest part of the writer’s journey comes from how the writing changes me. The Sun Singer and the darker, as-yet unpublished Garden of Heaven were each written over a twenty-year period because, other than the plot and theme the reader sees, these novels dealt with integral issues within my own life. I had a lot to work out!

Bertram: I’m beginning to see that what I write is what I happen to be living. My first four books explored the theme of public lies and hidden truths because that’s what I was studying at the time. My current work supposedly explores the theme of safety vs. freedom, but it’s really about change, and there is a lot of change in my life right now.

You have a book that’s going to be published this summer. You once mentioned that you wrote it differently from the first two.

Malcolm: In Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire, I opened the floodgates and let the words flow. I wrote quickly and it felt like play because I had turned my wisecracking alter ego loose with no chains or boundaries. When I finished writing and editing the material in less than two months, I felt the good kind of tired one feels after an afternoon at a carnival or a day at the beach. This was energizing because, well, I was still capable of play and the benefits of play. Do you feel this “play value” from certain chapters of your novels or from your short stories?

Bertram: I start out playing with ideas and characters, and then when I start writing and trying to make all the pieces come together, I lose that feeling of play. One of the things I am looking for on my journey as a writer is more playfulness. I don’t know if you can you choose where you want to go on the journey, or if the journey takes you where it wishes, but I would like to experience what you did — opening the floodgates and letting the story flow.

Malcolm: I’m curious about your novel in progress.

Bertram: So am I! For a long time I had no real idea what I was writing — I thought I was writing a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy — then all of a sudden one day it dawned on me I’m writing another story of a mythic journey. As my hero tries to find his place in a world that changes by the minute — cities becoming prairie, oceans appearing out of nowhere — he follows the hero’s path, and becomes transformed.

My third book, which is going to be published in a couple of months, was my first mythical journey story. It’s about a young woman who discovers that her grandparents were recently murdered which came as a shock to her because her father claimed they had died before she was born. She goes on a journey to discover who her grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father lied to her. I purposely used the mythic template for the book (wanted an excuse to use it, actually), though her mentors and allies aren’t the typical alien or fantasy characters such as wizards, but are aged gangsters and conmen.

Malcolm: My father’s brother was murdered in Fort Collins before I was born. The case was never solved. From time to time, I wonder what happened. Time and distance are part of the challenge of finding details. It would be a journey to dig into it as your character will do in Daughter Am I. I love the concept of going back to figure out the real story.

Bertram: I do, too. All of my books follow the same underlying story: who are we, really? And how do our experiences change us? Which brings me to another question I want to discuss: does a person write a book or does the book write a person?

Malcolm: Your question reminds me of the difference between a layperson’s view of a complex and a Jungian analyst’s view of a complex. People sometimes admit that they have one complex or another. Jungians see it the other way around, saying that the complex has you.

Perhaps the relationship between author and book is the same for many authors, with the book holding a much greater sway over the author’s life than s/he–and especially his readers–may believe. At best, it’s like a marriage, author and book, and the better the book is, the better that marriage has been.

Bertram: That makes sense. I am at a crossroads in my writing life. I’ve used up the theme that haunted me for many years — public lies and hidden truths. Because of my stories, I seem to have come to an accommodation with the reality, and so I no longer have any desire to write about such things. So now I’m waiting for some other . . . passion, perhaps. Or a transformation. Because it does seem as if writing transforms us.

Malcolm: People often talk about defining moments, good and bad. Afterwards, they see themselves and the world differently. Plunging into the deep waters of a work of fiction in progress is also a defining moment. Writers experience what their characters experience whether it’s the horrors of Pingfan or the joy of my protagonist in The Sun Singer when he reaches the summit of a mountain of visions. We polish these scenes until the horror and the joy are shown to the reader in ways that cause the greatest impact. Doing this, I think, changes a writer just as much as a “real life” experience.

Bertram: In The Writers Journey, Christopher Vogler talks about writing as a perilous journey to probe the depths of our souls, and that the struggles we undergo to write, to sell our work, to deal with rejection seem to kill us, but we are resurrected to write again. And to go on another journey. Best of luck with your next journey, Malcolm.

Malcolm: This has been fun, Pat. Of course, I’m not the same person here at the end of the post that I was when we started. But that’s what it’s like being on the path.

See Also:
The Writer’s Journey
Celebrating Five Years of The Sun Singer

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