On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 3


Even to this day, I don’t understand what happened. And I have never again had an experience where the words threatened to explode out of my head if I didn’t write them down.
It should be clear by now that I had little or no conscious input into this story, which leaves the vital question: where did it come from?
On many occasions during the 26 years he spent writing and drawing Cerebus, Dave Sim would talk about That From Which It Comes. Sim had long since ceased to believe that he was creating Cerebus, but rather that he was a vehicle for something, some indefinable thing outside of himself, that required the story to be told and which was using Sim as the vehicle, or conduit.
Sim spoke of discussing this with other writers and artists and, in coded terms, receiving confirmation from them that their work was being similarly compelled.
I have very great difficulty in believing that anything like that happened to me. I’ve never thought of Even in Peoria as anything more than a light, entertaining, comic-dramatic story, with no deeper significance, which makes it impossible to imagine some out-of-body entity wanting it to appear. But that still leaves me without an explanation for what was the most pleasurable – indeed effortless – writing I’ve ever done.
I’ve known for many years that I have a good subconscious sense of structure. Several times, I’ve composed things on a random basis only to find that, when it came time to make whatever changes were needed to make them into a coherent whole, they already were.
And since Even in Peoria, I have ceased to rely on advance plotting or pre-defined endings, and learned to trust in my ability to bring a story to a fitting conclusion simply by writing it. This isn’t boasting: I am convinced that much of the heavy work involved in writing is being conducted at the subconscious level, with Peoria as an extreme example, and it extraordinarily difficult to take credit for something you have no control over.
For many years now, as new ideas cross my mind, I’ve tended to start with some intense thinking about whatever idea has sparked my interest, before committing it to my subconscious to develop. Sometimes that takes a long time. I’ll give you an example in a later one of these essays.
Whatever else it taught me, Even in Peoria completely overthrew my established working practices. I’ve already said that I no longer plot in advance or need to know the ending: it’s enough to have the initial concept and a principal character, with a couple of ideas of things that will (probably) happen. From that, I can let the characters start to define themselves, and to move the story forward, towards ends generate by their wants and needs.
They live their story as I live my life, not knowing what’s coming.
And I don’t write out longhand drafts of the story any more: in fact, I try my damnedest not to write anything down on paper because it’s so wearisome copying it up into the laptop (even if I do end up revising the same drastically on the few occasions that still applies). I do still let the story proceed from beginning to end, before starting to study it in more detail. The last two times I did this, the story grew in scope and diameter in the Second Draft.
Next time, I’ll tell you something about the process of discovering what you want to write about, and some methods of developing that initial spark into something with a shape.

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