A week ago I finally finished the pre-page-proof edits for The Tourist, which will be looked over and hopefully approved by my US editor. Despite some grinding moments when I despised the entire book and wondered if anyone would be put out if I just sank the damned project, during the final run-through I was surprised by how good the results were. I could finally see why various people had gotten excited about it. The writing is some of the best I’ve ever pulled off, and the story really does move, and to interesting and unexpected places.
I don’t bring this up in order to pat myself on the back, but to wonder aloud about what novelists know and don’t know when they’re writing. Certainly we know a lot—we know our characters and the storyline as we work it out, and we may even have some idea what we want to achieve as a whole (though more often than not we achieve something different). But what we don’t know—or, what I never know—is the cumulative effect of all our choices. How will the word choices and characters and narrative structure and story and theme, once combined, look?
The cooking analogy would ask: Do you know, as you mix the spices, just how the final dish will taste? For myself, like in my cooking, I’m usually the last one to know.
I don’t know because I don’t usually have “distance” from the text, and when I do it’s short-lived. For those of us working on a yearly schedule, who also need up to a year to actually write the book, this kind of distance is hard to come by, simply because you run out of months. So, in essence, I spend a year of my life pretty much in the dark about what, finally, I’m writing. It’s only at the end of the year that I (hopefully) gain enough distance to see what I’ve done.
It’s a curious thing, knowing that you have so little conscious control over the variables of your story, yet still devoting up to a year hammering away at it. And it’s of course refreshing when the result ends up better, not worse, than what you imagined. In fact, when it works it’s kind of magical. Sometimes, your unconscious even serves up bits of wisdom that you never would’ve committed yourself to in a normal conversation.
For example, when I finished Liberation Movements, in my editor’s comments she said, “It’s strange, Olen. You’ve written these other books about how politics control people’s lives. In this one, it’s almost as if you’re saying politics don’t even matter.” I puzzled over that for about a minute, then it hit me—yes, that’s exactly what the book was saying. Not only that, but I even believed it! Yet I’d not actually admitted this to myself before that point, not consciously, even though it was the book’s central theme.
But the writer’s unconscious doesn’t just serve up bits of tin-pot philosophy. It does more practical things too:
A few weeks ago I got a lovely email from my French editor, saying how pleased he was to continue publishing me, and praising aspects of this new book. In particular, he pointed out my pronounced sense of realism, particularly in the Paris sections, which take up a quarter or so of the book. I’d previously received green lights on the Paris sections from my agent, who’s half-French, and my editor, who spends a large chunk of each year in France. But it was shocking to hear of this from a lifelong Parisian, particularly since…
…I’ve never been to Paris. Or to France, for that matter.
Again, this isn’t about me, not really. It’s really about the imagination and the unconscious, and how it can pull off shocking feats on a regular basis, if you just let it. I’ve not always been able to do this, and I know it doesn’t move in a consistent flow, but sometimes you get a little kick that reminds you that there’s something to be said for believing the occasional nugget of wisdom from your imagination, or at least treating it seriously.
So, on that note, happy holidays…
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)