Why I Write

By Catherine Bell
Rush of Shadows

As I write, I cycle through different stages of motivation and reward. It’s never easy, but as long as I keep going, I’m happy, which is why I call myself a writer.

Catherine BellA memory inspires me, or an event or anecdote. It’s just an idea, or feeling, but if it has emotional resonance and promises human complications, I’m in. At this stage I write notes everywhere: at work, around the house, the car. I wake up at night and put things down. Eventually I sit at the computer and transcribe the notes, adding to them as I go along, listening with my mind’s ear, letting whatever there is pour out. The story so far is intriguing, barely seen. It’s as if I’m swimming in the ocean and my foot brushes something. Soft? Hard? Alive? How big? Do I dare bring it up and look? Is it nothing after all? A beautiful stone? The key to all the world?

I will have a lot to learn to imagine the story properly. Outer research with Wikipedia and history books. Inner research putting characters in situations, asking them questions. Research is easier than writing, and I never know enough, so it’s tempting to go on forever, but at some point I have to stop. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a source that shines such a bright, authentic light on my story that I know I can write the truth. With Rush of Shadows, it was Robert F. Heizer’s The Destruction of California Indians: 19th century letters and newspaper accounts full of unmediated attitude, compiled with the grave indignation of the editor. The light went on.

In my notes are dialogue scraps, fragmentary places, splinters of time. I have so much. I have nothing.   No real scenes. No order. No plot until I know what the characters will do. No characters until events define them. So, jump in anywhere, riding the feeling of being seized, fascinated, absorbed. The piece will outgrow its first dozen conceptions anyway and be structured and restructured many times.   After years of work on Rush of Shadows, exploring the different ways people saw a situation, I decided it couldn’t be told in one voice. This meant so much more work! I remember the exact, traumatic, thrilling spot on a hiking trail in Nova Scotia where I realized we had to hear Sam’s voice directly, and Law’s voice.

The hands-off stage is always more important than I think. Sanity means recognizing when I’ve worked so long and hard that I can’t see what I’m doing any more. Bitter as it is, I put the story aside and let the unconscious mind take over. Patience is part of craft. When I pick the story up again with fresh eyes, the reward is seeing that it’s still imperfect, embarrassing even, but still worth working on, with one or two new ideas just coming to mind. In this way, I write many drafts, laying down revisions like layers of paint, until, I hope, you don’t see the shabby places, sketchy characters, ramshackle methods and half-baked ideas I started with.

I share my work with a writers’ group, less for praise or advice than for information. How did you take it? Did this work for you? Was that a problem? A community of mutually vulnerable and exacting writers is beyond price. If they like something, I’m energized, and if they don’t, even more so. I’ve got something to mull over that may make the story better. Reader reactions are often surprising. I once sent out a story I’d struggled with for years and finally brought to perfection, only to hear from an editor that he liked it but it didn’t come together at the end. Wounded and fed up, I quit bothering. Later I saw what he meant, a version of what I’d worried about myself, and revised yet again. I’ve lived long enough now to see that story published, a prize-winner. That’s motivation for you.

Finishing is dicey, because the work is never perfect, never done. Toward the end, as if prose were poetry, I read it aloud. The pleasure of the right sound is better than money. It’s like work in a darkroom – precise and technical but emotional and meaningful as well. Your negative’s pristine, your focus sharp, you’ve checked the temperature of the developer solution and calibrated the exposure time to the second. Now you stand back and watch the image rise up in the pan, never less than miraculous. Sometimes I think, Did I write this? I wouldn’t have thought I could, if I didn’t know I had. Something bigger than me has been at work, and I’ve had the good luck to be part of it.

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