Anytime Philip and I drive somewhere of any distance, we do our best to take the back roads. I pull up the map on my phone and steer us toward our destination by the smallest, passable road possible. Sometimes, we dead end at a creek, and sometimes, we wind our way past farms that span horizons, farms usually the special treat of the locals. We don’t know what we’ll see, but the mystery of the journey – that’s the heart of the joy in the trip.
Yesterday I was talking with a writer, a man who mostly writes academic work but who wants to start writing fiction as a way to find some freedom in his work while also continuing to increase his facility with language. As soon as he told me he was considering this new path, I got so excited because, well, I think any writing helps all writing . . . and because I could just see the kind of wonderful stories he would tell.
His central question for me was, “How do I do this? Do I need an outline or something?”
I smiled and told him the choice was his – that some folks use outlines and some don’t . . . but then I gave him some of the best wisdom I’ve gained in my years of writing:
“Follow the story. Let it take you where it wants to go. If flying monkeys appear, let them be. You can also decide you don’t want to rewrite The Wizard of Oz later. Let the story guide you.”
See, my experience is that writing is, as I say a lot, a heart thing, a journey guided more by some internal compass of emotion and passion and the quiet fantasy of all life than it is a method or a system. We build systems to support our writing lives, yes, but I haven’t found that systems for the actual creative work themselves do anything but stifle me and make my words feel stilted and teetering.
I like the mystery of it all – that sense of setting a trajectory and then taking the detours, minding the creeks, following the questions of a gravel trail. I find energy there – questions for which I do not yet know the answers. The surprise. The hope of not knowing.
So today, as I start a new research journey that may – if all the pieces come together – be a chance for another book about enslaved people, I’m settling in for some months of following the trail of clues that the ancestors of time and landscape give me. Oh, just the thought makes my fingers tingle.
What about you? Do you enjoy the mystery of the journey? Why or why not?
The amazing launch team for my new book Love Letters to Writers is going full-force to share this beauty with the world. If you’d like to join us, I welcome you to do so. In exchange for your help in sharing the book and a brief review, you’ll get a free copy of the book. Come on over and join us here – https://www.facebook.com/groups/334212757025188/.