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I could tell you that writing fiction feels like making some sinuous watercourse. A river. A creak. A stream.
I could describe my ideas—my characters, even—as the traveling water. The outer banks, you see, could be my imagination. With time and movement, with the mysterious back and forth of my work, these banks would change—expand, and widen. Excitement, clarity, compassion, eloquence—those would be words of my widening. And I would write hoping that when (if) a reader came upon my finished ‘river’ someday, they would be widened, too.
Or I could compare starting a story to carving an elaborate design into a stone. This design would be made from a continuous pattern that bends somewhat wildly, but also repeats. So there would be order in it—an inherent sensibleness to its intricate, echoing motif as I chisel it into place, sentence by sentence.
I suppose, in this scenario, I would hope for my final reader to be both comforted and provoked by my creation’s strange symmetry. That its curvatures would mimic their own experiences, and yet also invite them to the unknown—the challenging realities of others.
But I can’t compare beginning a story to making water rush or slowly chiseling stone. In the six or so years I’ve been seriously attempting short fiction, starting out has felt much different.
Most of the time it just feels like…rambling. Like roaming around without my shoes.
Unless I accept this—live it out at the desk—writing fiction scares the… Bereshit Bara out of me. I have the abandoned paragraphs and orphaned pages to prove it—words that never really became real in the beginnings at all.
So to fight stasis, I have to embrace some seriously nonsensical seeming wandering. Some zag and some zig.
Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.
Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.
I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.
Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.
The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.
But lately I have come up against this halting fear armed with etymology. I allow myself to think about a single word in whatever I have written—to pause on it, mull over it, and suss it out. Why is this word in my twisted little sapling of a story draft? And where did it come from, anyway?
To give you some idea of how it works, even if just in the process of writing a (this) non-fiction piece–consider the word: meander.
Meander: a turn or bend along the course of moving water.
Meander: an ornamental pattern of winding or intertwining lines used in art and architecture.
Meander: the title of a Stanley Plumly poem that I have read at least five times this month while struggling to get a story started. A poem that unpacks this word with spare eloquence and sensory imagery by speaking of:
endings as beginnings, the egg, the moon,
the perfect snow,
geometry and physics of completion, symbols of certainty,
the formal beauty of arrival.
These are but a few of the meanings and histories to spill out from this one word. They remind me that I am not language’s Creator, but created to re-create.
When I write fiction, I might not be making a river, but I can be the bend in it. I can be a curved line in a design already completed, even if I cannot see the end from where I am. There is pleasure in scrabbling around, through the cadence of just-made prose or details of character.
There is early joy, even if its raw source makes me uneasy. I can’t test my writing unless I trust it as writing—at every stage.
Novelist Michael Ondaatje believes: “The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.”
He is speaking here of assurance offered by an author to his reader. But the assurance I seek as I write sounds nearly the same. In them I hear God’s urging—first to get going, and then, once the tracks are there, to go with them for as long as I can. To be a triumphant meanderer, praying as my stories moves.
And as I go about my making, I will try to remember the winding watercourses I have seen from airplane windows. How their twisted, even snake-like bodies had an order very faint, very earthly. They were not quite holy—not yet. But they were beautiful as they flowed, and flowed, and followed.
Adele Konyndyk lives and meanders in Hamilton, Ontario. While she enjoys writing reflections on culture, faith, and justice, she sometimes uses freelancery to distract herself from her short stories. So feel free to urge her back onto the fiction track by Tweeting her, emailing her, or sending The Avengers to her house.