For the most part, the writing process remains a mystery to me, even though I've been doing this for a long time now. My first story was published when I was 10 years old. On a mimeograph machine. By my fourth-grade teacher. (Everyone in the class got a copy, and I signed each one.) I've written a lot of stories since then, including the fifteen in Precarious, but the process is never the same.
That first story was in response to an assignment: Write a story about anything you like. I wrote about a baseball game with an unlikely ending. (I had cast my two best friends as the captains of opposing teams and couldn't decide which should win, so I had an escaped elephant interrupt the proceedings.)
Much later, when I started to get serious about writing, stories came to me in different ways. I didn't have to write them, and yet I did. Looking back, it seems almost as if I had no choice. The ideas never came easily to me. Well, never and always. I couldn't turn out a story at will. I couldn't just decide to write one. But then a story, or the beginnings of a story, would suddenly take shape in my mind. It was easy if I wasn't trying. The story might be inspired by a photograph in a magazine, a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation overhead at lunch. Or it could come, seemingly out of nowhere, in the form of a first sentence.
I almost never know where I’m going with a story. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even conscious of why I’m writing it, unless it's simply to find out what will happen. Invariably I get stuck and don't know. Have no clue. Can't figure it out. The remedy is usually a long walk, a hot bath, or a good night's sleep. In extreme cases I've been forced to leave a story half finished for years, as was the case with both "Taken," which was inspired by a photograph, and "Dance Naked," which was inspired by a true story.
The phrase “inspired by a true story” should always be regarded with suspicion because you never know how much is true. Very little, in this case. But years ago, as a newspaper reporter, I had the chance to cover a murder trial and that’s where I got the idea for “Dance Naked” — two guys fighting over one woman and how ugly that can get. But it’s a much different story than the one I covered. I made up 99.9% of it. And it doesn’t end the way I thought it would.
In some ways, I think, my process is probably similar to what an actor goes through to get into character, drawing upon his own memories and emotions in order to empathize with the person he's portraying—only I get to play all the parts: The hero, the villain, the man, the woman, the faithful friend. On the page, I get to act out lives unlike my own. Not that I consciously think of it as acting. My process is largely unconscious, and a lot of my best stuff comes to me as I'm waking up in the morning, as if from a dream. It's just there and I don't know where it came from.
Originally posted on TSP.