For a change of pace, this past weekend my writing group decided to hold a daylong retreat in lieu of our weekly Monday meeting. So on Sunday, we met from noon to 5:30pm to write, to socialize, and to eat all the goodies each member contributed to the extravaganza.
In addition to our normal prompts, we did an exquisite corpse as our final exercise of the day. I had never done one of these before and was eager to see how it would work. Everyone was given a sheet of paper and the timer was set for five minutes. Then we wrote the start to a story. When the timer went off, we handed our sheet to the person on our right, with all but the last sentence covered up. Then the timer was reset, and we had to write for another five minutes, picking up where the person before us left off.
We did this seven times – one turn for each person in the room. And as we went along, it became increasingly difficult to make sense of the previous sentence and write coherently for five minutes.
Now, since this was the last prompt of the day, our fatigue from writing for hours is one explanation. However, I’d like to think we were experiencing the phenomenon where the more progress you make with a story, the fewer the possible outcomes. As the sheets got passed around the room, and more of each story was written, it became harder to add on. Each story was demanding to be written in an increasingly limited direction, except the writers could not know all the variables that were hidden from view and respond accordingly. So we did our best, often resulting in much amusement and confusion when we got around to reading all the stories aloud at the end.
But the experience reminded me of a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:
Whatever language we speak, before we begin a sentence we have an almost infinite choice of words to use. A, The, They, Whereas, Having, Then, To, Bison, Ignorant, Since, Winnemucca, In, It, As . . . Any word of the immense vocabulary of English may begin an English sentence. As we speak or write the sentence, each word influences the choice of the next ― its syntactical function as noun, verb, adjective, etc., its person and number if a pronoun, its tense and number as a verb, etc., etc. And as the sentence goes on, the choices narrow, until the last word may very likely be the only one we can use. (2003, Changing Planes, p.167)
There’s always a point I reach in crafting a story where I know there’s only one direction I can take a piece, even if I’m not certain of the specifics just yet. Sometimes what needs to happen in my stories is obvious right away. In others, it can take days or weeks until the proper way to proceed is apparent. In those situations, I need to listen to what my story is saying to me. I need to identify the trajectory I’ve unknowingly hit upon and see it through.
The story can lead the writer to the right ending just as often as the writer can steer the story in a certain direction. Just remember to listen to what your words are telling you.