On Writing What You See (Sarah Porter)

I often get the impression that non-writers regard the writing process as far more deliberate, conscious, and willful than it really is, at least for me. Writing always feels to me, not like making something up and imposing a design on the page, but instead like carefully feeling out the contours of something that was there all along. If I'm stuck I might start trying to make things up, just to keep going--things that aren't actually there--but if I do that I'll be sorry, and I'll have to throw it all out anyway.

Because it isn't what happened.

Believe me, I know it's irrational to regard fictions as having some kind of alternate reality, occupying some alternate space that the writer has to try to peer into and the describe. I don't believe there are literal fictive realms floating around in soap bubbles and just waiting for somebody to pay attention to them, exactly. On a rational level, I suppose I have to admit that I have agency in my writing, and that I'm responsible for it. But it really doesn't feel that way.

It feels a lot more like seeing one of those bubbles drift by, and standing on tiptoe to try and see what all those colored lights inside it are doing, and then becoming mesmerized by the tiny figures inside. And soon there's the moment of surprise, and a startled realization: Wait, she's in love with him? Or: Oh my God, that's why he's been acting so strangely!

It feels like building a house for ghosts to live in, then listening to them whisper.

It feels like clawing through piles of dirt until you can feel the shapes of people walking under the ground.

"Craft" is transcription: trying to write down what you see, to be as accurate as possible. (Though I kind of hate the word "craft" being applied to writing. Sure, you need some craft to write well, but this ain't macrame. I do some crafts too, and it's really not the same thing at all.) Things might get blurry, you might make guesses or mistakes that you'll have to fix later, or leave things out, but the effort is always to describe what's there as truthfully as possible. And so when people complain about the events in works of fiction, my own or other people's, I sometimes feel kind of impatient. It's dark, or upsetting, or crazy, or you really wish the protagonist made a different choice? Sorry, but that's what happened. I was there; I saw it. You wouldn't want me to lie to you, would you?

Books I love all have this feeling for me as well: that they were there the whole time, forever, until somebody unearthed their stories. I'm grateful to the author, not for some act of heroic invention, but for the labor of discovery. And when I don't like a book as much, it's often because it feels forced, made-up.

Maybe this makes writers sound kind of helpless, but that's not really the case. It doesn't mean there's no value to, say, doing an outline; it just means you might have to depart from the outline as you discover more of the story. And it doesn't mean there's no way to get ideas: there are methods, like journaling, for inviting stories to appear. If you build a house for the ghosts and leave the door open, they might decide to come in and stay a while. Artificial, painful, make-yourself-write-anything writing can be a way of telling the ghosts you'd really like to get to know them. And once you do, writing isn't forced or artificial at all.

Do you know what I mean?


  1. I've always compared writing to rocks. You can write about the rock--and have a perfectly good story--or you can pick up the rock and explore all the gooey, gross, and interesting things beneath it.

  2. Yes. I don't feel that I create stories as much as I discover them.

    But the craft part, the intention, happens during revision, though not during first drafts.


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