The unknown: Writing when you have no idea what you’re doing

I spent most of this past weekend thinking about my second novel. My plan is to submit synopses and sample chapters for a few novels I’ve written over the last several years, along with some new ideas, to my agent and publisher in the near-ish future. When I created this plan, it sounded reasonable, but I’m having so much anxiety about it. Most of my anxiety is about the new ideas because they are just that–ideas. They are not at all fleshed out. If the consensus is that one of my ideas has the strongest potential for a second novel, then I will have to write the damn thing. And I have no idea what the meat of those stories will be. It’s like walking into a big unknown.

But then I got to thinking that every story I write is walking into a big unknown. It’s just that I usually meander into the unknown in a much more leisurely manner because, until now, nobody has been waiting for my work. I think the trick is to work the same way I always have, as if nobody is watching or waiting. And I have to remember that what I’ve always loved about writing is that big unknown.

ann patchett

I read Ann Patchett’s This is a Story of a Happy Marriage a little while ago and she had some great things to say about her writing life (and the unknown). She says:

“There are people who write in order to find out where the story goes. They never talk about what they’re working on. They say if they knew the ending of the book there would be no point in writing it, that the story would then be dead to them.

“There are also people…who map out everything in advance. (John Irving, for example, can’t start writing his books until he thinks up the last sentence.)”

I am definitely in the first camp. Always have been. Every novel I’ve written has started with very vague intentions. And they always take turns I never could have predicted (and wouldn’t want to). So, why am I afraid of the unknown? Maybe I’m just afraid of the work ahead. I know it takes time to wander through the unknown, to figure out the characters and where they’re going. Lots of time.

Later, Patchett says about the early stages of writing a novel:

“It’s like walking through a field in a snowstorm and for a long time I see nothing but the snow, but then in the distance there’s something, a tree or a figure or smoke, I just don’t know. I always have the sensation that I’m straining to see what’s in front of me. The snow lessens for a minute and I catch a glimpse of an idea, but when I get closer the light starts to fade. I squint constantly. It goes on like this for a long time. If I were taking notes they would read: I see something. A shape? I have no idea. It’s not exactly the stuff that literary archives are made of.”

Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (which I think applies to writing and living life in general):
writing like driving a car at night

Patchett says, ultimately, the unknown is a good thing:

“What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.”

Right. I make the entire world. No big deal. I got this.

4 thoughts on “The unknown: Writing when you have no idea what you’re doing

  1. This was super comforting, I just started writing and have no idea what I’m doing, if I’m remotely decent. I started writing for a fiction class requirement and I actually kind of like it. Once I’m invested in something that makes it scary as shit. Any type of commitment actually. It’s cool to hear that an actual published author struggles with not knowing it all. Thanks for your honesty.

    1. Thanks for reading, Molly. Glad I could help! I would guess ALL published authors struggle with self-doubt. I think the “not knowing what I’m doing” feeling is part of the excitement, in a weird way.

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