I once had a writing professor who said that he never started a story until he had completely defined every scene in it—the purpose of the scene, the information divulged, the emotions to be engendered.
It was one of the most shameful things I have heard in my life. Shameful for me, I mean. My writing process—if it can be dignified with such a phrase—is almost the exact opposite of this. Most of the time that I am “writing” is spent wandering around in the literary wilderness. By which I mean looking up obscure internet facts, finding reasons to become politically outraged, staring at the wall in terror and napping. We probably don’t need to share this information with my wife.
My dark little secret is that I seem to have very little control over what I write—perhaps none at all. I understand why people believe in muses. Invisible spirits that capriciously grant inspiration to abject humans around the world—it’s as good a theory as any. In any event, I really can’t take very much credit for any of my work.
Unfortunately, this creates an awkward situation when I’m asked by a prestigious publication to write an essay on craft—I really can’t claim to have a whole lot of it. Craft, I mean. All I can give you is a summary of how I wrote “The Deepest Part of the Lake” and hope that it will be of use to someone.
This particular piece came into the world in a state very close to the way it appears now—bridge, mobsters, Planned Parenthood, Dean. I wrote it in the space of a few hours during a forced-march flash festival that my writer’s group was putting on. There is a kernel of non-fiction in it—Russian gangsters from Los Angeles were, at one point, actually using a lake in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada (the New Melones Reservoir for the curious) for the disposal of their victims. Everything else in the story came from—well, we’ve talked about that.
Looking over that initial version, I thought it was nearly done. But experience has taught me that when I think I’m 90% finished with a piece, I’m really closer to halfway there. So, as I do with these things, I put it away for a while, hoping that either I would become smarter or that the muses would revisit me.
When I came back to it, I thought there might be enough material there for a short story, rather than a flash. So I added some backstory and spent a long time thinking about possible plots, maybe something involving the Planned Parenthood center, or perhaps some parallel narrative involving actual Russians. But after considerably more time wandering in the wilderness, the story stubbornly resisted my efforts to expand it. Eventually it became clear that this piece really wanted to stay short.
I finally came to the realization that the story needed just a little bit more from the mobsters. They are the catalyst for Shelley’s musings, and the metaphorical arc of their lives—a long journey leading to an abrupt and unpleasant end—felt like the anchor that the story needed.
The section starting with, “These men had come all this way…” then, is the only section of the piece I can legitimately take credit for. It’s not much, but I think it’s what the muse would have wanted me to do.
So now, finally, comes the craft section, in the form of some of my personal suggestions for writers:
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to write. You’re doing just fine.
- Embrace the fear—it’s where the good stuff lives
- You look tired. Go take a nap.
JOHN HAGGERTY’s most recent work appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Fourteen Hills, Indiana Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He lives in Northern California and is the founding editor of The Forge Literary Magazine.