Cathy and I decided to go for a drive today. “Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been,” I said, and she agreed to that plan. From time to time, we like to drive out into the country just to see what we can see. “We always go east,” I said. “Today, let’s go west.” And that’s what we did. We drove out of town, heading west, and we kept going until we came to a T. “Right or left?” I said. “Right,” she said, and off we went.
We both come from rural roots, so we enjoy getting deep in the country—gravel-road kind of deep, farm-country kind of deep, deer-spotting deep, where sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can escape all artificially manufactured sound. We can hear the wind moving over the timothy grass, the chatter of squirrels, the call of killdeer and quail. Today, though, we couldn’t find that kind of country. Instead, we found the country that belong to the city people who want to have some acreage. We drove past magnificent homes with outdoor tennis courts, swimming pools, multi-level decks. Only on occasion did we pass an old farmhouse sitting on ground yet to be bought up by developers. We kept going until we came to another T. “This time, you choose,” Cathy said. Since she’d chosen right the time before, I chose left. And, again, off we went.
At one point, we crossed over an interstate highway. Four lanes of traffic moved along below us. “Is that I-70?” I asked. I-70 runs east and west. “No,” Cathy said, “I think it’s I-71.” I-71 runs north and south on the east side of our town. “How can that be?” I wanted to know. “We’ve been driving west.” And wouldn’t you know it? We’d driven so far west, we’d ended up east.
Such is often the case when you’re writing. You may think you know exactly where you’re going when really you have no idea. The piece you’re writing knows much more than you do. It has ways of taking you where, from its very beginning, it’s intended to go. All along the way, you make choices. Your main character, for instance, can do this or that. Each choice opens certain possibilities and closes down others. One choice might lead to a predictable end, one that’s easily forgotten. A different choice, though, might lead to a more resonant end, one full of surprise and a level of truth that’s remarkable. What happens if Gatsby doesn’t hit and kill Myrtle Wilson in Chapter 7 of The Great Gatsby. We’ll never know, of course, but we can feel fairly certain that the grieving George Wilson doesn’t go looking for Gatsby with murderous revenge on his mind, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan don’t leave for Europe, and our narrator Nick Carraway, disillusioned with the whole rotten bunch, doesn’t return to his native Midwest. A certain choice on Fitzgerald’s part creates the last third of the book, including its resonant and unforgettable end: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Here’s what young writers often don’t know. Any choice they’ve made can be rethought. In revision, we can make a different choice—we can go left instead of right—to see where that road might lead. Something in the beginning of a piece begs our attention. Something about the character relationships, something about the trouble characters find themselves in, something those characters try to suppress, or deny, or refuse to see. That something is the truth the piece has come to the page to dramatize. It often contains its opposite. The son who abhors having to accompany his mother to her reducing class in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” finds himself, stunned and helpless against the thought of losing her at the end of the story. Describing the gaudy hat the mother wears in the opening of the story, O’Connor writes:
She lifted the hat one more time and set it down slowly on top of her head. Two wings of gray hair protruded on either side of her florid face, but her eyes, sky-blue, were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten. Were it not that she was a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put him through school and who was supporting him still, “until he got on his feet,” she might have been a little girl that he had to take to town.
The vulnerability that the narrator notices in his mother co-exists with the behaviors that madden him. His affection and his fear of losing her rise up through his disgust with her by the end through a series of prudent choices O’Connor makes. My point is the resonant end is present but submerged in the opening of the story.
The piece will tell us where it has to go. It becomes our job to listen. Today at the T, I decided to turn left, and the road took me to a surprising place I didn’t know I was meant to be. Even though I’d been there before, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time because I hadn’t planned to be there. I’d only listened to my intuition.