Albert Einstein was supposed to have said that if he had an hour to solve a problem he would spend forty-five minutes understanding the nature of the problem and fifteen minutes trying to solve it. I thought of this when Andre Dubus mentioned one of his favorite Flannery O’Conner quotes: “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.” Which leads me to yet another great O’Conner quote: “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” I believe this goes for writers themselves, for as Alice Hoffman said in our first interview, it is not unusual to begin a story of any length feeling as though you have never done this before, that you don’t actually know how to tell a story.
And so the staring begins. And what precisely is that writer staring at? Words? Not if he or she wants to finish that story. I realized recently that if I spend an hour writing one of these essays, like Einstein and his problem solving I spend only about fifteen minutes actually choosing which words will go on the page. The rest is spent staring at the thing I wish to say—or, more precisely, staring at what looks like, but is not, the thing I wish to say until it dissolves and reveals what I do wish to say.
In this way, staring is a great timesaver, because once I have seen clearly what it is I have been seeking, the words come very quickly. For this reason, when I think of writing, when I think of what it is I do at the desk, I never think of words. If it were only words, it would be so much simpler, for I would be like a carpenter building a story or an essay.
But I am such a craftsman only by necessity. Mostly, I am someone who stares. I am always staring at the same thing: that which I know but have hidden from myself. I have hidden it for a reason, and what both draws me to my desk and keeps me from it is what I will find, the truth I had hoped once upon a time was a lie.
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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com