A book is not a concrete highway going straight to purgatory. Plenty of people are trying to get there fast but who needs to be reminded? It’s not a rambling road with divergent tracks in multiple planes going nowhere. Well, maybe scatterfall stories are that chaotic, but I haven’t written one of those since I was six. Eventually we want the story to end, well or ill, but first to travel in spellbinding fashion.
A book is more a path in some order of forward movement across stepping stones of events. How I lay those stones is endemic to my tale and my writing style. How you traverse the stones is influenced by your willingness to step where the path is tricky or unpersuasive. Did I convince you that you’re safe and the stones are worth crossing? A lot of metaphor here, yet reading a book is as much a leap of faith as writing one is, and there is no bigger metaphor for life than that. (Perhaps, you say, and you might be right.)
I can’t write every single detail and neither would you want to read them, no matter that you as reader may still have questions at the very last word. Knowing when to stop, when I’ve said everything germane, when the plot has run its course, and the characters have learned everything or nothing is my decision as a writer. Readers begin their opportunity to interact the moment my book is in print. (That’s another story!)
This may sound like an authoritarian mandate but it’s really more a question I’m asking myself. My newest work in progress is based loosely on stories my parents told me about their childhoods. In order to protect their dignity and privacy, in order to protect myself from angry relatives, all names in the book have been changed.
As I began to write I had immediate questions. Like, whoa there, the dates don’t align, how could that be true? Or, hey dad, can you provide a few more details so the story has more gravitas? Or, mom, are you telling me this actually happened? Really? Do either of you know of a few juicy incidents that might make someone stop in their tracks and sob – or scream – or run? Because that’s the stuff stories are made of and I could use a little help here. Everyone just got quiet. Hmm – secrets?
In my case I’m at an impasse. My father has passed and my mother has advanced Alzheimer’s, so there are no answers forthcoming from the folks who told me the original stories. Perhaps held back those most controversial or unflattering – read interesting moments. Cousins know a few details but not enough to fill the gaps.
So I’m doing what writers do – making stuff up. Emerging from the inchoate racket in my head is a story of a different sort than what I’d originally intended. Not memoir, not creative non-fiction, barely recognizable as lives related to my family, the story is entirely fabricated. And that’s OK. A good yarn is what I wanted to tell. Gather around the fire, and let me begin. Once there was a young boy and a young girl who…
We’ve all stood there at the fork in the road, wondering if a unicorn waits at the end of one path, a treasure chest at the other. We’ve all wondered what if? What if I’d taken the other road, would my life be better? If I’d asked more questions of the right people when they could be answered, would I know enough to write a better story, a more exciting one? If I had never tried to base this story on any semblance of my parents’ lives but chosen to create entirely fictional characters?
The unknown is all I have. It’s all any writer has. It doesn’t really matter which road I take. It matters the adventures I invent, the people who confront and resolve their crises, what truths I expose along the way, and how riveting a story I write.
So here I go, right foot first, left foot next, each leading until it is the one that follows. You, dear reader, will have to fill in some of the blanks along the way (Hey, writer, you missed the butterfly with seven wings) but I certainly hope to lure you down a merry, magnificent, mysterious path. We’ll only know if it was the best choice when you come to the end and declare what a fabulous journey onto the unknown path it was.
Or don’t. Because the other one might have been just as good or even better – had I written it instead.
(Thank you, Robert Frost, for the reminder.)
Painting Road Leading to the Lake by Paul Cezanne