A Novelist Walks into the Woods

Yesterday, at the college where I teach, we hosted novelist Greg Spatz, who read from his new novel, Inukshuk. The book is great–read it if you haven’t–and Greg’s reading was fantastic, but my favorite moment came during the Q&A. A student in the crowd–one of my comp students, actually–asked Greg how in the hell somebody goes about starting to write a novel. I love that question. It gets at the heart of how non-writers think about writing. So much of the contemporary literary scene is writers talking about writing that it’s a delight to hear from someone whose interaction with literature is first, foremost, and only as a reader. The question betrays this sense of wonder that something as large, strange, and whole as a novel can ever simply emerge from one person’s mind.

But even better than the question was the answer. Greg said–and I’m paraphrasing here–that starting a novel is like walking into the middle of the woods with an ax and starting to cut down trees, trying to make a path. It’s not an efficient method, he said, but it’s the way it works. You hack away. You get lost, start over, forage for morels and fiddlehead ferns, make a fire out of sticks. You have to start somewhere, and there’s no map, so just start. Swing at something and feel the metal edge bite in. Go, keep going, and maybe, eventually you’ll figure out where you are and where you need to go from here.

I love this. I’m neck-deep in a novel project myself right now–have been for the last few years–and this could not better describe the process, the false starts, the feeling that the project is far too large and my tools far too limited. But there’s joy in the hacking. There’s joy in hearing limbs break in the canopy above as the massive things come crashing down, the vibrations through the undergrowth, the sense of progress and of the total lack thereof. It’s being a boy again, setting out into new and unknown terrain. Maybe, sometimes, it’s enough simply to venture in, even if you never emerge with something whole and pretty and perfect-bound to show for it.

11 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Nice…. And I think even when you do “emerge with something whole and pretty and perfect bound,” you’re also fully aware of how much hacking and getting lost went into the project — far more than you’re aware of having something whole and pretty and perfect bound at the end of the journey.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      In a weird way, I find this really encouraging. It means that the process is somehow about more than just the finished product. Comforting in the midst of the long trudge of the process.

  • Wonderful! My thesis champion at Notre Dame, William O’Rourke, suggested something similar — but drier. He said the start of writing a book was like beginning to walk across a desert. A vast desert. If at the start, you could see the mirage in the middle of the desert, and that mirage actually existed, you were in pretty good shape and should keep walking.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Renee. I like the idea of the mirage in this analogy, the idea of trying to sort out whether or not the thing you’re chasing in the book exists.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    After he used that metaphor I turned to the person next to me and whispered “BEAUTIFUL!” It felt so accurate and perfect and comforting.
    Thanks again for putting together a great hour!

  • Sarah Frey says:

    As a non-writer, I really liked this! I read so many great things, with some terrible thrown in there too, and am amazed at where these can come from. That it’s a person just like me, just like my brother, who did this. Keep chopping away Jonathan!!

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks for reading, Sarah. It is important, I think, for writers to make themselves aware of the perspectives of readers–like you! And it’s easy to lose sight of that when so much of the conversation is writers talking to writers about writing.

  • davez says:

    Hi Jonathan, You’re absolutely right. That’s the way all art is done. It’s important to note that in all cases, there is already a path (or road) made through the woods before the hacking begins. Although sometimes that path was reinforced previously by us, it was usually someone’s path before we got there. But be sure to work along the path or carefully forge a good path before taking visitors there. Most people don’t like or can’t go cross-country through the brambles. They just get tired and all scraped up. They might even break a leg and need to get rescued. But the Grace of Jesus Christ will help us there.

    And also, that axe you use, make sure the blade is sharp, sharpening it after every few uses.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Dave, This is a great point about the way we depend on those who have gone before us to have a entry point into art-making.

      Also, how great to hear about this from your perspective in the visual arts. Cool that there is so much overlap. Thanks for reading.

  • dot trail says:

    Jonathan can reach you by email?

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