Lights On The Road


The novelist E. L. Doctorow famously described writing a book like driving at night on a darkened road: though you can see only as far as your headlights, that light is enough to get you where you want to go. It is one of the most frequently quoted analogies I hear when talking to other writers, and for good reason. Every story, no matter how long, is written one sentence at a time. You simply can’t start the next one until you finish the one you’re working on.

In fact, I don’t know for sure what the next sentence will be about until I finish the one I’m writing. Short as they may be, a sentence can take you in a surprising direction. A single word can turn the whole thing. The best part of writing, after all, are those authentic surprises – the fresh idea, the plot turn, or the new characters that appear as if on their own. When they arrive, they are like guides I can follow, as they seem to know better than I where to go next.

The only way to allow myself to be surprised, to create an inviting environment for inspired ideas, is to keep my attention on the road I can see, and not worry about the roads I can’t. I realized recently that most of my anxiety in my non-writing life comes from worrying about, or merely thinking about roads I can’t see. It seems like the responsible thing to do, this kind of life planning. Where do I want to go? How will I get there? How should I dress when I’ve arrived? Sure it’s fine to write one sentence at a time, but in real life I need to scan the distant horizon for threats large and small.

That horizon is entirely in my imagination. Doctorow’s analogy is as true of life as it is of writing. I can never see past the headlights on the road. It is all darkness beyond their cast, and anything I think I see in that unknown is pure invention, a mirage dreamed from fear of what might be. How strange that I think I don’t want to be surprised, that I believe I must always know what’s coming. The surprises are there to tell me where to go, and though I still doubt and fear them, they have never led me anywhere but home.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
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