In October 2003 I began working on the first of what would eventually become a collection of twelve linked stories that was published in 2008 under the title Evidence. When I started writing that story I had no idea where it would lead or that I would eventually write eleven more from the perspective of the same narrator. At the time, I wasn’t even sure if I had what was necessary (in terms of resolve and fresh ideas) to finish that story, let alone a whole book.
The memory of writing the first Evidence story is vivid because of when it happened. I had a full-time job at a university and in October the academic community is at its busiest and most hectic. My days were occupied with time-sensitive tasks and a variety of responsibilities. As I proceeded very slowly through that first story, adding a sentence or two or maybe a paragraph on any given day, something singular and amazing started to take place. I found that I began visualizing the world of the story in a detailed manner and with a degree of precision that I had never before experienced with any of my fiction, which to that point included about twenty stories and two unpublished 300-page novels. As I worked through the mysteries of character development and dramatic opportunity that this new story presented, I found that it was encroaching upon my conscious thoughts when I was occupied with other things. It didn’t matter what I was doing or who I was with, characters from the story would be clamoring for my attention. And as I worked at something related to my profession as an academic librarian or spoke with friends or colleagues, my mind was busy deciding how best to move the story forward. I must have seemed distracted, but if I did nobody said anything.
By the time I finished that first story I was so completely immersed in the world of my character, whose name is Kostandin Bitri, that the second story in the collection had more or less taken shape in my mind. Unknown to myself, I had been thinking ahead. The story was waiting to be written, so I wrote it. I don’t mean to imply that the writing was easy or simple. It was still a matter of finding time to get the words down on the page, and get them in the right order. But when I was writing, I didn’t feel like I was inventing or discovering. Because I was visualizing the world of the story so clearly and in such fine detail, writing the story felt more like I was writing about something that already existed. An inevitable comparison is to say it was like entering a room and describing what’s there. I was hearing what the characters were about to say and seeing what they were going to do almost before I’d had a chance to consider what any of that might be. I wasn’t being called upon to make decisions about what direction the story was going to take because that work already seemed to be done. Most extraordinarily, I found that if necessary I could put everything on hold. If I knew I was going to have twenty minutes for a coffee break later in the morning or afternoon, I could turn off the story and concentrate on my salaried work until break time, then switch gears and write down everything that was waiting to be written, and then switch back to the other work without losing a word.
I suppose this is what people mean when they talk about inspiration: a state of mind where you find yourself living in the world of your story. You develop a clarity of purpose that nothing can shake, and no distraction (short of death, the ultimate distraction) can deflect you from that purpose. Even while sleeping the mind remains active, working out issues with plot and character, rehearsing gestures and dialogue, listening for the knock on the door and opening it to see who’s there. When you sit down to write, the words arrive unambiguously and seemingly without effort—because all the heavy lifting is being done elsewhere. This level of creativity has been compared to taking dictation. As if in the grip of a master storyteller, you watch events unfold before your eyes and record what you see. And because the grip is firm and the vision clear, everything seems to happen as it should. There is rarely a need for second guessing plot points or word choice, and revision seems unnecessary (at least while you’re writing). It’s only when you emerge from the dream state and return hours or days later to review what you’ve written that the veil falls away and you spot errors of logic or missteps in diction and syntax. But if your experience of this heightened state of creativity has been genuine, and if the original vision was pure, these errors should be minor and easy to fix.
I proceeded through the collection in this way. When I completed one story, the next was ready to go. The momentum swept me along until the following March, when, abruptly, it all came to an end. I finished the 12th story in the sequence and no subsequent story presented itself. I waited a couple of days and tried again. But there was nothing I could do. It was over.
I only mention this to emphasize that most writing is not done this way, at least in my experience. Most of the time the drama does not arrive pre-assembled, the room seems cloaked in fog that obscures its contents, the characters sit in silence and won’t be coaxed into speaking, and the words come one by one, if at all. And you’re reminded moment by moment that writing is hard work—and that sometimes it’s not even fun.
But every so often the fog lifts. The world of the story offers itself completely to view. You feel that rush as the words begin to flow. This is the moment that writers live for and that makes the rest of the struggle worthwhile.