During a recent weekend trip to a small town on the north coast of Lake Erie, in a used bookstore that also sold antiques, I stumbled upon Writing Life, a collection of essays about writing by a variety of authors. One of my favourite kinds of books.
I’ve been working through it slowly and this afternoon read the conversation between John Berger (of Ways of Seeing fame) and Michael Ondaatje, in which Berger tries to describe what his books are like before the writing begins:
“Well, I can only describe what happens, which doesn’t make much sense, but before I really start writing a story, like you there is something there. There is Venice or a date or a character, but that’s only a starting point. The story is my mind is absolutely not verbal. There are no words for it at all. Nor is it visual, it’s not a series of shots or a painting. It has something in common with music in the sense that it is complex and can be held in the head like a whole musical composition, although it can never all be there at any one given moment. I haven’t any words for it. It is perhaps in a way geometric, but it’s not, because I think that implies an incredible precision. Perhaps it is algebraic in a way, but it’s much more chaotic than that; and the strange thing is that, for a long, long time when writing, I check it against the inarticulate, totally amorphous thing, and it can say with certainty, ‘no, what you’ve just written is false” or, occasionally, occasionally, ‘yes, perhaps that’s not too far away.’”
Ondaatje replies by describing it as an “an unfinished ideal … not at all verbal, it’s sort of like a tone of music. … You go toward that tone.”
There’s also a great exchange about characters unexpectedly breaking into a story. And I loved Ondaatje’s description of how in the process of writing a scene you’re kind of waiting for things to happen:
“When I’m writing a scene, I will not know the eventual arc of that scene at all. I am waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to say the wrong thing, change his or her mind, do something odd, pour some milk over somebody’s hand. Odd things like that are outside the normal behaviour of a scene.”
I’m getting close to the end of my latest first draft (yes, still on a first draft, again), but it still feels like every scene I write has this possibility inherent in it. Possibilities both in the scene itself and in each character. I’m close to the end but I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Enough of the time, something halfway good has emerged when I stay open to whatever might happen next, whether it seems to fit or not. So all I can do is keep trying for that, again and again.
You can watch or listen to this conversation between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje in its entirety on Vimeo.