Wednesday, January 7, 2009

a wrench

Students often ask what to do when they get stuck writing a story. They’ve got a few characters, a time period, place, and a situation, but nothing much is happening. There are all sorts of answers I can give, but one of them is the wrench theory. Sometimes you just have to throw a wrench into the machinery that is just plowing along, taking you only where you expect it to take you, like a large clock, ticking away. Throw a wrench into the gears and sparks fly, smoke billows out, maybe even something catches on fire. People come running. Someone has to do something. Nothing is ever the same. I read about this in some how-to book on writing. It said, "Have a tree fall on someone. See who comes running." I used that advice, and you can see the tree falling in THE REHEARSAL. My characters did things that I didn’t expect–and this is the important part, that after you throw a good sized wrench in, watch and see what your characters do. And hope they surprise you.

I remind my students that this is basically how life works. You’re sailing along, dealing with stuff, handling it somehow, although it may not always be easy. Then you get that phone call, or a drunk driver slams into your car, or the guy at work you hardly know tells you some horrible secret, or your daughter ends up in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (you thought she just had the flu) and it turns out she has sudden onset Type 1 Diabetes, and she’ll have to give herself insulin shots every day for the rest of her life, and you are afraid of needles, and can’t imagine how she is going to deal with this, and everyone cries, and then, oh my god, she figures out how to do all this amazing stuff, checking blood sugars, giving herself shots, measuring carbohydrates, giving up most simple sugars, and hardly a week has passed, but life has changed, and you’ve found out that your daughter, who you know so well, can still completely surprise you.

Literary fiction is character driven. It’s about the characters. The plot is how a character deals with a problem, or problems. Plot devices are the war, the tornado, the tree falling, the diabetes, the problems. Sometimes we have to do bad things to our characters to see who they really are, and what the plot is about. And the fun part is when they surprise us.

And yes, it’s been a rough few weeks here, but my daughter is an amazing young woman. I’ll get back to fiction soon. Right now I’m just wondering where the hell that wrench came from–not the most productive question though. Things just happen, right out of the blue. As a writer, you get to be the wrench thrower. As a human being, you can get hit pretty hard. I am so lucky to be able to say she’ll be fine. Sometimes that’s not what people can say. My heart goes out to them.

Peace and all good things, such as health and happiness.


michael salinger said...


Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Fiction we can control - but real life - that's another story. I hope your daughter continues to handle it all well.

Anonymous said...

I have read this post several times, Sarah, and I still hold my breath each time. God bless you and your daughter.

sarah willis said...

Hi Michael, Diane and jtd7,

Thanks for your thoughts.


Amy said...

Sad and lovely and really good, Sarah. We are so vulnerable to other machinations...

Unknown said...

Just what I'd expect from you two.

Writing that grabs me somewhere in my middle and travels up in a fullness to somewhere behind my eyes.

And a supremely competent and intelligent young (only compared to us)woman who knocks us out with her independence.

With admiration,

sarah willis said...

Hi Amy and Hq,

Thanks for checking in here, and thanks for your words.