I start out somewhere familiar, let’s say a room I know very well, or maybe with a person I know very well. Okay, so that person is usually me. Or the female version of me. Or the elderly-man version. Or whoever. And I don’t care what anybody says, there is a part of you in your characters. There has to be. The only way we know what it’s like to be human is through our own experiences of being human. So this me/not-me version of myself describes this room (or town, bar, field, whatever), but you can only explore the “room” for so long. Maybe a great writer could stay in this room for the length of an entire novel, but most of us need more toys for our characters to play with. Either somebody has to enter this room, or your character must find his/her way out. But the thing is, by the time your character’s hand reaches for that doorknob, they’ve already started to change. They are no longer you. They’re closer to becoming whoever they’re trying to be.
The book I’m working on now is like that. It starts out in a small Colorado town similar to one I lived in during my twenties. But soon there’s a twelve-year-old boy walking around in this town on a kind of bizarre scavenger hunt. And soon after I started writing, I realized that this boy’s older sister had committed suicide the year before. And then there’s this tree at the center of it all that was stolen and has something to do with the boy, the dead sister, and the town. The only similarity to the town of my past is the mountain looming in the background, but even that soon starts to unhinge itself from whatever picture I once had of it. It’s almost always like this when I start. Like I’m fighting something. Or uncertain of myself. Or afraid to leave the familiar. But once I’m out there, in new territory, meeting these new people, it’s like I can’t believe I ever resisted it in the first place.
And I think it's okay for the familiar to be a kind of starting off point. But make sure you let everything after you leave that safe place become less and less familiar. That’s when you’ve abandoned your known world: when your characters become separate from you, people you’re following rather than pushing. And this being led about by a character is what I think most mean when they talk about the magic of writing. But maybe ‘magic’ isn’t quite the right word because it implies something mystical, something us ordinary people just can’t access. But I don’t think that’s true.
Ezra Pound once referred to something he called the “golden thread in the pattern” weaving its way through poetry. It’s sort of like that. You begin to see clues in your own writing, hints, parts of this special thread slowly being unearthed. But those hints aren’t put there by some kind of magic. They’re put there by you. The only trick is knowing how to find them. It’s only once you leave the familiar and finally get lost, once you realize you’re standing alone in some strange desert with a thin wind blowing about your feet, that you're forced to look for these clues. And soon you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of; you’re fine out here in the desert. You're terrified maybe, but in a good way. Your heart is pounding. You look around and maybe a snippet of dialogue rises from the sand, a nothing bit of nothing talk that starts leading you toward something. Maybe it's just a mirage, but that's okay, everything in this desert is a mirage. So you start to follow this thread and the next thing you know an hour or two has passed, and, when you finally pull your head up from the page, the outlines of your everyday life begin to take shape again.
It happened. You left. You did it. And now that you’re out there, you know all you have to do is sit back down, be patient, and it’ll be waiting out there for you again.
And you can’t wait to get back to it.
What a wondrous, glorious, magical thing that is.