A couple of summer’s ago I taught at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference up on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The conference is held at Fort Warden, a former military installation made famous because the movie An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed there. What is amazing about the place are the huge bunkers that at one time housed sixty-ton guns and all the men necessary to guard the Strait of Juan de Fuca from foreign aggressors. These monstrous stone ruins are overgrown like Mayan temples and imbedded throughout the hilltop like some sort of vast archeological puzzle.
My son Colin was nine at the time, and we tramped back and forth through these haunting structures. For a nine-year-old, it was perfect: the lost city. At one point in the fence bushes, Colin literally found an old door. We explored its chambers and many, many more. Colin led me through dark corridors and across parapets and through tunnels in the brush; he was intoxicated with happiness. At one point two small deer met us head-on as we crawled through the thicket. Later Colin took my hand as we approached another stone battlement, and he said something I will never forget. “Dad,” he said, his voice rich with joy. “Don’t you love it when you don’t know where you’re going?” I mean it sat me down right on the ancient battlements. It was a fine moment in a great day for us that summer, but he seemed to have enunciated my credo as a writer. Those moments when you are beyond your map, past your plan, without instruments, and you continue to venture further and further into the story loving not knowing where you are going.
We live in a society that doesn’t offer any support or approval for ventures that aren’t clearly articulated and aligned for a goal. A writer gets past this. It’s going to be a mess before you’re finished, and you may not have a name for the mess or understand its utilitarian purposes. There aren’t words for everything. For now, we’ll call it the draft of a story.