Once upon a time, the story goes—and it doesn’t much matter which story—two children were lost in a pathless wood. The pathless wood is as archetypal as the wicked stepmother, the faithful huntsman, the fatal injunction (think Eve, think Pandora, think Bluebeard’s unfortunate wives).
I’ve been thinking of pathless woods a lot in the last few days, because I seem to find myself lost in one—and not for the first time. I just finished a short story, which will maybe someday be published somewhere (who can say? publishing itself is a bit of a pathless wood). The beginning was easy. Beginnings always are. You just step into the trees.
Endings are easy, too. You just step out on the other side.
Middles not so much (and the middle of this story was especially trying). When I was at the Clarion Writers Workshop, a long, long time ago, Damon Knight told me that to write a story he had to have a beginning and an ending. The story itself—to mix metaphors—was a bridge between the two. But building bridges, like finding your way through the wood is—for me anyway—a daunting task. I know where I want to go—I even have some idea of how I want to get there—but actually doing it is altogether another issue.
Partly this is a matter of plot, of course, and I’ve tried to solve the problem by outlining, by laying out my path in advance. I’ve created some fantastic outlines—narrative outlines that run for pages on end, numbered outlines that lay out the scenes in seemingly inviolable order. The problem is that it’s not inviolable. You invariably run into obstacles—a boulder that turns you from the path, a ravine that forces you to circle around and find some other way. Characters decide to do something unexpected, the plot takes a twist you didn’t see coming—and these are magical moments, moments that tell you your story is coming alive. And one thing you learn early on is that you don’t fuck with magic. But it sure does tend to strand you among the trees.
Thankfully I made it through the short story—we’ll see how successfully I navigated the road in workshops and in its ultimate acceptance (or lack thereof) for publication. But a story is a small thing; if you get lost, you haven’t sacrificed that much in time and effort. A novel is something altogether different, an investment of years, for me anyway (I marvel at people who write novels in months—or week-ends, as Barry Malzberg has claimed to do (and I believe him)). Just now I find myself 40,000 words into a novel, knowing where I want to get to—the other side of the woods—but having only the vaguest sense of how to get there. When I was a kid, I was once told that when you’re lost, the wisest course of action is to stay in one place until somebody finds you. But when you’re writing a novel, nobody is looking. The only way out is through—though the trees seem to whisper among themselves, conspiring against you.
So I push on, knowing that the story on the page will never measure up to the one inside my head—and I think it’s because I tend to get lost in the middle. I’m wandering through the woods, scattering breadcrumbs as I go. But the birds are hungry and there’s no turning back now.