Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stories That Come True

Do we write the worlds we wish for into being? Or the worlds we dread?

Freud would have a field day with that one. So did I, when recently I found myself sitting on my kitchen floor, sobbing, because I’d just read the end of my next novel – the one I started writing a year and a half ago, and set aside while I worked on other projects, like the first novel that will be published next spring. I opened the old computer file of novel number two, printed the manuscript, and started to re-read it after months of ignoring it. I read it twice in two days. The first time, when I got to the end I cried a little. The second time it sent me to the floor.

No, it’s not a tragic ending – it’s a happy ending, in fact. No, it’s not terribly written – I quite like it. In some ways, it’s better than novel number one. (One would hope one’s writing keeps improving, wouldn’t one?)

What makes me sob is that somehow, a year and a half ago, in a work of fiction, I wrote a story about my life today. Without knowing it. Without meaning to. And it is a story about a woman who writes stories that come true, in ways she cannot predict or control.

This is what it's like to write fiction – we create stories that we cannot entirely predict or control. Characters decide to change, or die, halfway through. Plot points become slippery and we chase them down rabbit holes. Language gives us conniption fits as we try to find the right words, not too many, not too few; exactly the right words the story needs.

My idea for novel number two (tentatively titled You, Jane) was inspired by two things: my plan to participate in National Novel Writing Month for the first time was one. I thought, “Hey. A story about a writer writing short stories – that means when I get stuck on the main plot, I can keep boosting word count by writing those!”

The discovery of a piece I’d written almost twenty years before was the other inspiration. It was about the death of a spouse at the end of a long, long marriage; I'd written it at the beginning of my own marriage. I thought it would make a good first “parable,” as I decided to call my character’s magical tales. Now here I am, coming to the end of a long marriage and getting ready to start over.

I’d read through this novel twice, and there I was, looking backwards through time, at the ending my previous self wrote that is strangely, maddeningly, irrationally, exactly true about my life today. What’s up with that?

A great place to begin a happy ending.
It’s the power of the written word. Maybe other artists – musicians, painters, choreographers – maybe they write songs, paint pictures, and create dances that grab their future selves and hold them, lying in wait for the moment to come, two days, two weeks, or two years later, when they collide. I don’t know. I know it happens all the time with writing. (It’s why I’m terrified of ever writing my own memoir. What if my writing about my past changes my future which makes my past go all different too, like a bad Star Trek time-travel episode where they make a mistake in the Old West and then poof! No Federation! I don’t want that kind of responsibility, let me tell you.)

It’s enough to write fiction that speaks some truth of your heart and soul at the time, and then manifests itself later in another reality: the reality of the hard vinyl floor under you, the hard wooden cabinet behind you, the hard metal drawer pull in your back, as you sob with joy because eighteen months ago you wrote a happy ending for your heroine, and now you’re living it.

Elizabeth Fountain is an author, college instructor, and consultant living in Ellensburg, WA. Her first novel will be published by Champagne Books in April, 2013, a light-hearted sci fi tale that is dedicated to anyone who has ever looked at her boss and thought: "You must be from another planet." You can read more of her thoughts on writing, baseball, music, and life at her blog, Point No Point.


January Bain said...

Hi Liz, quite the post! I am writing a new book about a writer who's words come true!!! Something in the Comos?!

January Bain said...

Make that Cosmos.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Logic can lead you there sometimes.

The spooky thing that happened to me is thrice meeting characters from my books that I had created out of whole cloth years after the fact: looks, speach patterns and life story.

Liz Fountain said...

Definitely, January, something in the universe... and Julie, wow, I'm hoping if that happens to me, I meet one of the good guys from my books!