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.