Dispatches No. 8: Joan Leegant on Getting Your Story to Tell Itself

Posted Thu, 2/19/2015 - 9:35am by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicDispatches is a series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. Want to make an appointment with Joan? Simply schedule one here.

Trust The Mouse: Getting Your Story to Tell Itself
by Joan Leegant

Years ago, I went to a reading by a prolific novelist in which she talked about the creation of the scene she was about to read. My character went to the dumbwaiter—those little elevators they used to have in big houses to transport dishes and food from floor to floor—and opened it, and there, to my great surprise, was a mouse. I had no idea it was there. Yet it turned out to be very important. That mouse led me to the story and helped reveal my characters to me. Don’t ever discount the importance of finding a mouse in one of your sentences.

Apart from the pleasure of the reading, I got two great gifts that evening: I had no idea it was there. And: It turned out to be very important.

Most writers, if they’re lucky, sooner or later experience the thrill of the narrative taking over so that something other than the writer’s conscious intentions drives the story. This is what we all hope for: to get out of the way and let the narrative start telling itself. What does this feel like? “Writing is like driving your car at night in the fog,” said E.L. Doctorow. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” To which Doctorow—who’s written twelve novels and four story collections in this fashion—added, in an interview in The Paris Review, “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing.”

How does one do this? For starters, you need to prepare yourself to grope in the dark for what could be a long time. You have to be able to cope with, and live in, a state of not-knowing. This means quelling your fears long enough to actually write what needs to be written (What’s this really about? Should I change the opening, point of view, main character? Will I ever finish? Will it be any good?).

But it’s not only a matter of psychology. There are habits, or perhaps techniques, for the process of writing one can cultivate. For instance, the narrative is more likely to tell itself to you if you stay close to what Ron Carlson calls the “inventory” of your story—the concrete materials emerging—and listen to what it has to offer.  Doctorow again: “It’s a matter of being in language, of living in the sentences.” If, in Sentence No. 1, your character is looking out the window of the hospital waiting room while his wife is on life support in the ER after a car accident, instead of trying to think about what happens next, tell us what your man sees out the window: the spring dusk, people coming to the door with flowers or stuffed animals, the spectacular mountains ringing the city. Following which he remembers a hike he and his wife took in those mountains soon after they married and the vigor she exhibited and also her stubbornness, and now there’s his anger at her insistence that she go out this evening despite the snow and his disagreement. Soon enough there’s a baby crying behind him in the waiting area and he turns and … Your story is unscrolling. All you have to do is pay attention and listen.

For more about how to get your story to tell itself, join Joan for a one-day class here at Hugo House on Saturday, February 28, called Limited Sight: Getting From One Sentence to the Next.