Week 1 Post 4: Leaving the Familiar Path

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.

It’s not like the Thing is going to transform into an unstoppable monster. Right?

15 thoughts on “Week 1 Post 4: Leaving the Familiar Path

  1. How ’bout just enjoy the THING. Have fun, play with the characters, the words…. does there have to be a point? I mean cotton candy is fun to eat, to pull the threads of sugar and lay them on your tongue to melt, to get your fingers sticky sweet and pink or blue… but cotton candy has no real value. But it sure is fun to eat! But I like the idea of not defining it yet, of letting it grow into whatever it needs to be, when it needs to. THAT is the hard part. Trusting the process 🙂

  2. Very well put, Jenn. But it seems the picture has gone AWOL. (Oh no,does this mean there’s some wild thing running loose in the internet?!) I’ll just imagine Tenniel’s Jabberwock in that space for now.

  3. I LOVE this post – especially this part!

    “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.”

    Lately, I’ve encountered on a thing of my own, albeit a different thing, a shorter thing, a not my novel thing. And I’ve been feeling some guilt – my goals are about the book…so do I take the week to finish a story instead? Thanks for the permission!!!

  4. Reblogged this on Waiting Outside of Parnassus and commented:

    A few days a go, I wrote a post for A Writer’s March, which I’m reblogging here. If you haven’t taken a look at A Writer’s March site, you should. Even if your not participating, there is a lot of good advice for writers.

  5. Oh, the power of The Thing–I have named mine a novel and have even been so bold as to seek an agent–and now I am COMMITTED irrevocably down a path–the joy and the agony……loved your piece. Am excited to follow your blog……..

  6. My first creative writing teacher told us a wonderful bit of information. Write, put it away for a week or two, maybe even a couple years then when you look at it again with fresh “older” eyes, be they older by a day or more you’ll see things that can either easily fall away or see what can be brilliantly added. I thought it was hogwash until I started doing it. Let your “Thing” marinate without you if you can and see what develops. Maybe you get a half sled-dog/half-man creature that spits out something “out of this world” and fabulous or the pieces to a new civilization! This is the work kid, this is the work of an author and this is what calls us all home to the den with the other howling wolves at midnight…you are a writer! I love the process and watching it—Bravo!

  7. atleast you are writing and Thing is actually alive!! so keep feeding it and loving it with your words and thoughts… I am sure it’ll turn out to be just awesome…

  8. I have a “Thing.” too. I’ve been toying with it for 3 years. It changes. It’s not a form I can recognize it. There are almost 60 pages of it. I can’t figure out what to do with it, but I can’t let it go either. Your post reminds me that maybe now is a good time to go back to the Thing and enjoy, mull, add to, morph, etc. Thanks!

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