Years ago I read an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “Writing Short Stories.” She talked about writing as an act of discovery. When I read the essay, I felt tremendous relief. I’d thought I was writing short stories all wrong. I’d never know where mine were headed. Eventually, I wanted to write novels. How the hell was that going to happen?
Some time after reading O’Connor’s essay, I wrote a story that eventually made it into Beloit Fiction Journal. The story concerned a father and son. The son, twenty, planned to marry. The father, Carl, had serious reservations. The night before the wedding, Carl lost his cool and caused a scene. He followed that up next morning by storming out of the house. He was out on his own, and I didn’t have any idea what to do with him. Something had to happen.
I had a twelve year old kid on his bicycle run Carl over. The kid rode on the sidewalk and clipped Carl’s leg hard enough to put him down. All of a sudden Carl had a direction to go. He was going to catch that little bastard and teach him a lesson.
Of course I realized Carl was really chasing his son. The boy on the bike was merely a substitute. An accident of circumstance had taken the place of Carl’s conflict at home. He saw a resolution, and he was going to pursue it. When Carl came upon the boy and a group of his friends, he verbally reprimand the kid. But the kid’s buddies circled Carl, threw sand at him, and mocked him. He took it. He realized his anger had pushed him in the wrong direction. Home he went to reconcile the day.
Looking back, there would not have been a story without that kid and his bike. Carl may have wandered for eternity and taken my story with him. Where did the kid on the bike come from? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But I do know what Flannery O’Connor meant. In order to discover, you have to put words down.
As for novels, I sat down a year or so ago to work on my latest attempt. Thirty thousand words in, I was stuck. I’d written ten pages the previous month and two sentences in three days. To take heart, I should have remembered the kid on the bike. In the novel out of nowhere, a dog showed up. It ran crazy down a street. Things happened one after another. The novel, Beat the Blues, is due out in April, 2018 from Unsolicited Press.
E. L. Doctorow put it this way: Writing a novel, he said, is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.