Kath here. Please welcome Dawn Tripp to WU today. Dawn’s latest novel GAME OF SECRETS , a murder-mystery spanning two generations, is getting terrific buzz. Booklist calls it “A gracefully told character study of three intelligent, forbidding women and the men who love them, wrapped up in a taut, suspenseful mystery, Tripp’s third novel builds to a surprising finish.” We’re so please Dawn was able to be with us today to talk about her creative process. Enjoy!
Last week on Reader Unboxed, reviewer Keetha DePriest wrote about how my novel GAME OF SECRETS explored the question: What do we really know about the history we’ve grown up knowing about our family?
As writers, what do we really know about what drives us, about the stories we are compelled to tell, and why?
When I teach, I tell my students:
Just write. Tell a story you are on fire to tell. Trust your own voice, your own instincts. Learn your own process. Find another writer, maybe two, who can give you honest, incisive criticism, but who can take to your work on its own terms. Cull through the insights of writers you admire. Take what works for you.
After three books and twelve years as a novelist, I have realized that what I think I know about writing is continually evolving. My creative process changes from book to book, year to year.
I grew up writing poetry. I studied poetry in college, and as a writing form, poetry is my primary impulse. But I love storytelling—the thrill of a well-told story, that’s how I make sense of my world.
My novels start in fragments—on the page for months—bits of character, story, scene. They might feel intuitively linked. I might have a sense of the overall narrative arc but, curiously enough, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the more vital the writing becomes. That doesn’t mean the order isn’t there. It doesn’t mean some dark underside of my mind hasn’t already figured it out. I put my faith in the fact that there is such a cogent order. And I write to discover it.
In the early stages of a novel, I turn my back completely on that adage ‘write what you know.’ I write what moves me, what I am impelled by. I start where I feel led to start. Sometimes I draft a sequence toward the opening, but more often I will draft what I sense to be the ending first. It’s like wind-marked ocean, this early stage, and I love that. Everything is still possible, the world of the story still inchoate, unformed. For months I write longhand—pen against a page. For me, there is a certain kinesthetic joy in the act of writing which engages the intellect, but ultimately serves a more primitive, intuitive mind—what Mary Oliver has called ‘the dreams of the body.’ Sometimes I write on little slips of paper—receipts, grocery lists, throw-away things that I then transcribe into notebooks—and from there to my laptop. I am particular about who I show my work to, and when. Not out of fear of judgment, but because when I am really living in a story, I am open. I put my faith in that openness. I don’t polish my drafts up too soon. Even after I have typed out a draft, I leave notes in the margins. I leave some passages entirely without punctuation. I leave things raw, untidy, open to change. That openness, I feel, is critical. I find that when I can let myself stay open to possibilities in a story that I may not yet have uncovered, when I can let myself be driven by what I do not yet know, the story often turns, deepens, in unexpected, revelatory ways.
Writing is a discipline. You need to stick with it, passage after passage. You need to work and rework a sentence, a chapter, a draft, until it breathes. It is hard work—being able to discern, to pare out moments, even whole scenes that are extraneous to your story and its arc. But it’s essential, I believe, to learn that kind of ruthlessness—where you can let go of what you long to keep—it gives what remains a kind of luminous intensity.
As I was writing GAME OF SECRETS, I felt like I was continually being overturned. And I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. Again and again, I would discover some new element that was not in my original vision for the novel, and often in consequence, the arc of the story would change, and I would have to let it change. I wrote what I thought was the ending of the story early on. I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be that drives you, day in, day out, to create the 300 pages leading up to that moment. What I did not expect, and could not have foreseen, was that in fact that ending was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing it, until all at once, I did. A story can do that. It can all turn at the end. And sometimes what we feel and what we sense can be more necessary, more intuitively true than what we think we ‘know.’