1. Don’t write what you know. Start with what you don’t know, what you don’t understand. Pay attention to what compels you, what bothers and truly fascinates you.
2. Start to write about specific people. They live in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t think about those initial questions any more. You are semi-blind as you go forward. The world of the book takes you over. You write scenes and dialogue and descriptions. You learn how people talk, what diction they use, the cadence of their voices. When you watch something, you notice what they would notice. You surrender to it. You lead a double life, a triple life. Years go by. Words accumulate.
3. You read what you are writing, and you start to connect things. You notice repetitions that surprise you, mysterious recursions and variations on words, ideas, objects. The density excites you; what these connections mean unnerves you. You waver—this isn’t the novel you thought you were writing. You wanted to write a different book. What’s worse is that you know you are not even succeeding at writing this book that you don’t want to write. You ignore yourself. You keep going. How? You go back to the specific time, place, people, language. The more specific it is, the more fearless you are in engaging its odd eccentricity, the more purchase it has on what we understand and recognize as true in our own very different lives. The writer has to trust that we are all strange in our own way, but we remain recognizable humans. The closer you look at something, the more complicated it becomes. You settle for just getting the complication down, framing it, being brave about it. But now it is becoming more difficult. You must remember everything you have written, and you have less and less freedom.
4. The specificity you are attempting extends to the structure and to the sentences. (For example, you notice that for photographs the convention is that we use the present tense; this is called the ongoing present. What does it mean that we write about photos, movies, and stories in the “ongoing present”? Do these things enable us to escape was-ness? Can they really enact an is-ness that is ongoing? Should you invent a new tense? Does the language we apply to memory work? Can you really write about not remembering? Can the language describe it or are there just terms for the indescribable that we agree on? And, hey, what’s with all these qualifiers? Why does she qualify her life? At this point you may find yourself curled in a little heap on the floor. Even the words “an” and “the” seem strange to you.) Somehow, despite your doubts, despite your belief that you are inadequate to the task, you keep going.
5. You become a structural engineer; you make sure that whatever you have put into motion has some logic, some internal order to it. You are cold, ruthless, pedantic even. Particularly if you have deviated at all from invisible mainstream realism, you have to make sure there is legibility, a consistency in your deviations. If you expect the reader to work it out, there has to be an “it” there.
6. Finally, the last phase: you resist. You resist explaining it all away. You resist making the structure too neat or schematic. You resist cleverness and easiness and sentimentality, but mostly you resist the temptation to take out the difficult parts, the weird things that make you feel really uncomfortable and fill you with dread. Those are the best parts! Your novel is troubled and deeply flawed, but it is what it is and don’t mess it up. Stop.
(This essay was originally published in Qu Literary Magazine)
Dana Spiotta is the author of four novels: Innocents and Others, (2016), which won the St. Francis College Literary Prize and was shortlisted for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Stone Arabia (2011), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in fiction; Eat the Document (2006), which was a National Book Award Finalist in fiction and a recipient of the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Lightning Field (2001). Spiotta was a Guggenheim Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow, and she won the 2008-9 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. In 2017, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her the John Updike Prize in Literature. Spiotta teaches at Syracuse University, as well as the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Queens University.