Fiction writers have been called many things, but magician seems to me the best description. They dip into the black hat of their imagination and produce an endless variety of characters, situations, images, genres, events, and styles. The effect on readers is nothing less than magical, the reader also becoming a magician, assisting in making visible what wasn’t there before.
Writers and magicians depend on their skillful fingers for their art. Slight of hand has considerable value in a writer’s bag of tricks—the ability to juggle numerous characters, settings, scenes, and themes simultaneously, rivaling the most accomplished conjurer. The reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary for the writer’s art to be fully realized.
But trusting in these magician’s skills also requires that the writer suspend her disbelief, and that isn’t easy. Each time I start a new story, a new chapter, a new novel, I must trust that the seeds of words take root in the soil of the page and continue to grow, watered and fertilized whenever I open my computer and put fingers to keyboard. I must trust each work I create will grow within my imagination as I write, that I’ll read and experience things that will feed the book, just as a child grows in the womb. Slowly. Stage by stage. If I can trust this, I can have the confidence to proceed.
So much of writing fiction is searching for the right tone, the correct voice. I probe the prose I’ve written over and over to try and find what the passage needs, what’s hidden between syllables, under words. It’s an ongoing search for the story, for the meaning, letting the imagination lead. Something clicks within me, as with an emotionally accurate dream interpretation. I can sense when I’ve hit the vein, when the path becomes clearer. It must be similar for a musician who can hear when a pitch is off. There’s a physical reaction when something doesn’t sound right. So I constantly reread what I’ve already written until the material shifts and something new comes into view. But the process itself can be agonizing. Each day I have to prove to myself again that I can do it—that my imagination will come through.
I fondle, tussle with, twist, and stroke the words, willing them into action, like a magician looking into a crystal ball. I approach them contritely, humbly, realizing that they have all the power, the authority here. I’m merely a handmaiden, doing their will. I’m their instrument. The story makes me become more visible as I tease out the strands of plot, image, character. It works on me as much if not more than I work on it.
This is so much like sculpting, reminding me of when I worked on the elephant that emerged from the rock I chiseled for months. I had to concentrate on the stone and nothing else, letting it become my guide, like language. The stone was my language. Writing is like painting too. First I sketch in foreground. Then I have to spend a long time filling in background, working the shadows, a touch of color here, one that will stand out like yellow or red. A deeper tone there so it will recede. Burnt umber or sienna. A moody deep blue. Oh yes and the moods, the way color shapes that part of a scene or passage.
This reminds me of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it seems to me each time I sit down to work on a novel or story I feel like Jacob. That’s one reason why it’s harder to write fiction. It takes extra effort and I resist it more. Writing essays—travel articles, personal narratives, whatever—and poetry comes easy. No problem. But the other, the invention, takes much more from me. It requires a heroic effort.