When I was a child, I was terrified of going to new places. There were a few places that I considered within my territory, and if I strayed out of that territory, I believed that people would recognize me as a stranger and heckle or even attack me. Once on a family vacation to California, we had to stop at a supermarket. I chose to wait in the hot car, because I was convinced that something would go wrong: it was all right to be a tourist as long as you stuck to the touristy places. Of course, nothing went wrong. Still I had good reason to fear wandering off the familiar streets.
When you leave the familiar, you face not just the unknown but the possibility of something going wrong. Your car could get a flat tire on a lonely stretch of road. You could become lost. You could meet some people who only wish you harm. There is a reason Little Red Riding Hood is one of the most beloved fairy tales despite never getting a feature-length Disney adaptation. The heroine is warned to never leave the path. These warnings are worth heeding.
At the same time, sticking to the familiar path ensures that you will never turn a corner and discover something beautiful, interesting, or confounding. How many side streets do you drive past every day without turning down them? Yes, most of the neighborhoods look the same, but sometimes you discover a park with a cool public sculpture, a house covered in brightly colored tile, a tree where someone carved Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is a reason that many people would rather risk a hole-in-the-wall restaurant rather than eat at a chain restaurant again.
Lately, I’ve been working on this Thing. I refuse to define it as anything more than prose. Someone asked if it is a story, and, while it has characters, I hesitate to call it a story as I’ve yet to find the plot. I’ve already filled 1 ½ small legal pads, so I’ve done quite a bit of writing. I resist defining what it is, because once I do the Thing will become constrained by the boundaries of that definition. Maybe it will be a novel or novella and I still have a long way to go. Maybe it’ll be a short story, and I’m just starting with the characters rather than plot this time. Maybe I’ll cut the majority of my writing, and it’ll be a flash fiction. Maybe it’ll lead me to an idea for a poem, and I’ll leave behind all the prose. Maybe, and this is what terrifies me, it’ll develop into nothing—the characters will never find their plot and remain half-fleshed out.
Usually when I’m writing, I have a set path—I know what I’m writing. If I set out to write a poem about X, I usually write a poem about X. Oh, I’ll discover new things on the way and will often get to my destination differently than had I expected, but I know roughly where I’m going. Yes, sometimes a seven page poem will become a sonnet, and other times a flash fiction piece will grow into an actual short story. On a few occasions, a piece has even shifted genres on me, but I always start with the confidence that I know where I’m going, even if turn out to be wrong in the end.
As I work on the Thing, I just don’t have any idea where I’m going. While I always feel fear and a gnawing self-doubt when I sit down to write, these unknowns multiply those anxieties. Am I just wasting my time creating melodramatic trash? Am I biting off more than I can chew? Shouldn’t I focus on something else? How will I know when I’m done? Am I condemning myself to writing for an eternity about two characters who refuse to find a story or point of some kind? It is tempting to put the Thing away and focus more on my other projects—projects that I can define in conversations. Yet, I’ll never know where the Thing will lead me if I stop. It could have become my first draft of a novel or a really dense prose poem—and I’m willing to risk a dead-end to know where this road goes. There are much worse things than dead ends.