“Writing is like driving at night,” the novelist E.L. Doctorow said. “You can see only as far as the headlights. But you can make the whole trip that way.” He was speaking of the way ideas reveal just enough of themselves to keep you moving towards a finished story. But becoming a writer is like that, too. You start out in the dark, seeing only what’s directly ahead of you, trusting that if you keep going and stay alert, the road beneath you will reveal what you need to know as you travel it.
I like this idea for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that my first big epiphany about writing actually came while I was driving at a vanload of sleeping teenagers back to Indiana after a wonderful, but exhausting week of exploring New York City together. I felt utterly alone and weightless in the darkness of midnight, Pennsylvania an endless black ribbon of interstate beneath my wheels. It was my turn to drive; it didn’t seem fair to wake the other chaperone and ask him to take his shift early. But my eyes were scratchy with fatigue, shocked again and again into opening fully by the way the white line of the highway went suddenly wobbly and the van swerved ever so slightly toward the berm.
Loud music helped, and rolling down my window to let in the cool night air. But it was an idea that set my heart racing and jolted me back into full consciousness—a cartoon moment, the proverbial light bulb switching on inside my head. I remember nothing about the train of the thought that brought me to the moment, just the idea itself: sometimes there is no word—and the suddenness with which it brought me awake to…everything.
I’d gathered up the courage to write by then and, like most beginning writers, I was still deeply enamored of the thesaurus. Increasingly, though, I was baffled by the all-too-frequent experience of searching and searching for the absolute right word for a story I was trying to write, a word I felt and knew …but could not find. Until that moment in the dark van, it had not occurred to me that a word I was looking for might not exist.
The thought excited me. What if it wasn’t my abysmal vocabulary, mediocre intelligence, or lack of training as a writer that kept me from being able to neatly match ideas and images with words? What if there was an unbridgeable gap between what it feels like to be human and the words available to the writer, any writer, to explain it?
“Wake up!” I wanted to shout. “I’ve just realized the most amazing thing!”
But I didn’t—and after that first impulse to share the news, I liked being alone in the middle of the night with my discovery of the paradox at the very center of writing fiction. Nothing we observe, feel, or know about our own human experience or the experience of others comes to us by way of words, but words are all we have to make a story in which living, breathing characters move through worlds that seem as real to the reader as his own back yard.
Jane Austen had to come to terms with this! So did Tolstoy and Toni Morrison. No serious writer ever had or ever would have the words he needed to recreate the world that was alive in his mind. Writing anything that mattered was all about finding and combining the words available to you, trying and failing until the gap between the story in your head and the world on the page was as narrow as it could be.
Flooded with relief, I thought, I can do that.
And I’ve been doing it ever since--writing in the light I have, traveling toward the stories that live inside my head.