My writing room is like a shadow box. It contains all the elements of story, collected as I go, until every available surface is covered. The walls of my shadow box are lined with old National Geographic maps. Many of the countries have been renamed or have changed boundaries since the wall was papered, sometime back in the mid- sixties, before my time here. The room has four big windows, and in the thirteen years we’ve lived in the house, the view has changed many times. Our neighbors planted a hosta garden, the couple across the street divorced and moved away. One house burned to the ground. Another was built. There are six new dogs in the neighborhood and three wonderful young children. A beloved neighbor has died.
Change is part of the view from this room, and change is part of the shadow box itself. Every time I finish a book, the room is emptied to make room for the new story and for the question it will invariably ask. There is one thing, however, that never changes. It is a greeting card pinned above my computer that displays the following Rainer Maria Rilke quote:
Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer. . .
They say that the only constant in life is change. And while that is certainly true on a number of levels, it is my experience that the only constant in a writer’s life is the question.
Every work of fiction starts with a single question: What if?
My first book began with the following question: What if a young woman who’d left her home to save herself and her sanity had to go back to save someone she loved?
As humans, a universal motivational force is to create some kind of order from chaos. For a fiction writer this is even more true. We not only try to bring order to chaos, but, as writers, we actually create the chaos, or so I believed when I started The Lace Reader. By the time I finished I wasn’t so sure. We may create the chaos of our stories, but do we control it? While I had once believed that I could direct the fate of my characters, it just wasn’t so. Each time I dropped my characters into the chaos I had created, I didn’t get answers. All I got were more questions.
And the questions kept coming, all through the first draft and well into the second. In some ways the process was like working with a good therapist — the questions became more and more meaningful until they finally revealed the big question that had always been at the core of the story, the one I had been unable to see:
What is the difference between perception and reality?
My entire novel had revolved around that question, but there was a reason I hadn’t been able to see it. As a first time author, I never would have tried to tackle something so profound. Or, if I had been silly enough to try, I might have actually tried to answer that question which could have been far worse.
I have come to believe that our job as fiction writers is not to answer the profound questions but to pose them in a new way, one that will inspire our readers to thought and discussion. Our characters still have to arc, our plots must be tied up, but the big questions should simply be asked.
My second book, The Map of True Places, began with a different question: What if a psychologist crossed an ethical boundary that might have resulted in a patient’s death?
That was the initial question, the logline. But in the ten years that had elapsed between my first and second book, our world had changed. 9/11 had taken our innocence. Our economy was failing.
Another deeper question emerged as a result of these changes: What do we do when the maps of our life suddenly fail us, and we are forced to find our way through unfamiliar territory on our own?
As this last question was asked, more began to appear: What is home? What is family? What do we owe an aging and ailing parent? What is the difference between predestination and free will? What in the world can we count on when people are lying not only to us but to themselves?
These questions flew around my shadow box as I wrote until they ultimately revealed the final, deeper question. It was a doozy:
What is truth?
Any writer would need a huge ego to think she could answer that one.
I am now working on my third novel, and I am getting accustomed to the process. Like the other two, it began with a small question which is leading to a much larger one. For me, finding that big question and learning to pose it are the reasons I sit down in my shadow box every day to write.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. What is your motivation for writing? What questions are you asking?
Answers are just echoes, they say. But a question travels before it comes back, and that’s what counts. William Stafford
photo courtesy Liz West