When writing her acclaimed novel Great House (2010), American author Nicole Krauss was filled with doubt. Despite publishing two successful novels, and knowing that unease was part of the writing process, her worries persisted well into her drafting.
“I begin my novels without ideas,” Krauss says. “I don’t have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book’s form. Often I don’t even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it’s going well […] I’ll continue this sort of aimless unspooling.”
For many writers this drifting in a sea of words can feel like drowning. What happens when you get stuck in your writing and can’t see the way ahead? We often think sheer intellect will resolve it—a student told me she’d spent weeks unable to write, because she hadn’t worked out her novel’s plot. But perhaps, at this highly delicate stage of composing we need only do the opposite: disengage the analytical mind and write through the perceived problem. Embrace a little play: begin a scene with a random line of poetry, write 2 pages of dialogue without attribution, describe a landscape seen by someone in an intense emotional state. This “aimless unspooling”, may feel like treading water. But slowly, as if by stealth, the way becomes clearer. When we’re deeply immersed in our writing there’s room for accident and discovery, for the originality that rewards us in great literature. And with each new passage you’ll find clues that help you develop story, plot and identify your themes.
Theme is intuitive; it percolates from deep within the work and can’t be imposed from the outset. Krauss eventually realized that her “acute uncertainty” was also one of Great House’s themes and a characteristic of its protagonists. “Over time, the willful uncertainty I held myself to as I wrote shifted from being my process to my material… One can’t occupy a position of doubt for a long time without beginning to think deeply about what it means to live in doubt…” So, how do you work out your themes? Consider your characters’ preoccupations or behaviors, recurring motifs, symbols, metaphors and imagery. In Great House the characters are loosely connected by an antique desk, once Nazi contraband and now passed between writers. This haunted object with 19 drawers and a locked compartment transmits one of the novel’s themes: the power of writing and literature to console, and to reassemble dislocated histories, identities and families.
Once you know your theme, you can refine character, style, imagery, tone, action—and you may find that a plot, or structure has insinuated itself. The unspooling, past this point, may no longer be aimless, but purposeful and direct as theme illuminates the path ahead.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 2011.