When it comes to writing, I surrender!

19 February 2010

by Thomas Trofimuk

Last fall, at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, I had the opportunity to hear John Irving talk about his writing process. He said he writes the last line of his book first, and then works his way backwards, chapter by chapter, until he gets the first line of the book, which he writes last. I listened to him and thought: 'Yikes! - John Irving holds the entire narrative in his head and writes to an outline. That is the antithesis of what I do.'

If we could divide writers (admittedly unfairly) into two broad approaches when it comes to the writing process, those two sides might look like this: those who write with a detailed plan, and those who write to discover what they're about to write. I am in the discovery camp. I surrender control. I let go. While it is not exactly the most efficient way to write, it's what works for me. If I know what's going to happen, I don't write. Writing novels is a marathon. You have to be keenly interested, always. This is not to say that I don't have a general sense of the direction, and a vague idea of where I'd like to land. But, for me, writing is both a bit frightening, and also exhilarating. It's a "Columbus" journey into the unknown. My characters have to breathe, and laugh, and ache, and occasionally stand up to me and say things like: 'No, I'm not doing that! I would never do that!' We argue and I don't always win.

Waiting for Columbus began as an exploration of the idea of obsession. Columbus, the delusional, wine-loving patient, first knocked on my door about 15 years ago. I was looking for a fictional way to explore the idea of obsession - a story hook. I opened the door of my apartment and there he was - disheveled, lost, desperate, and most importantly, obsessed. So I let him in. I started to write about this fictitious Columbus. I mean he had to be obsessed right? All the best minds of his day said it was too far to sail west to Japan and India but he was determined to go anyway. All the experts said he'd die out there. But I want to see what's out there, he replied. His venture was a long shot. If he hadn't accidentally run into the West Indies, we wouldn't know about Columbus - he'd just be a blip on the historical radar. He'd be a guy who got some boats, sailed west, and died somewhere between Spain and Japan. I wound up writing about 30,000 words. I would read the history books on Columbus at night, and then write in the mornings. I began to understand just how many books there were out in the world on Christopher Columbus and also, how many of them that disagreed. The scholars can't even agree on where he came from. Was it Italy, Spain, Portugal? To have this sort of myth and mystery around this historical figure is the perfect scenario for a fiction writer - there's a freedom and latitude. And I wanted to make it clear that my Columbus, and what would become the novel Waiting for Columbus, were works of fiction - not history, and not historical fiction. That's why inside the story Columbus tells to Consuela, the 21st century (at the time, 20th century) artifacts started showing up in the 15th century. Hairdryers, cell phones, cars, handguns all got dropped into the 15th century because the history was only the vehicle for the story, a way to unravel the obsession, a love story, and as it turns out, a narrative with a tragedy at its heart. Just past the 30,000-word mark, I hit the wall. I really liked what I'd written but I had no idea what to do with it. There was no narrative arc to it. Not yet. So, I created a new folder on my computer, saved the Columbus file, and moved on.

While Waiting for Columbus was gestating, I wrote and published short stories, poems, and two pretty fine novels - The 52nd Poem and Doubting Yourself to the Bone. I also met and married my wife and we have a daughter - currently "the-daughter-of-a-thousand-questions."

Three years ago, while driving to a poetry event, the narrative of Waiting for Columbus came. The story was there, at the top of a hill and around a corner. I knew how to tell the Columbus story. I pulled over, called my wife on my cell phone and asked her to write down everything I was about to say. Well, I probably barked at her and she wrote down everything I said. And then I was off…I'd like to think the book came out of me because it was the right time…and this may be true. The 15th century was a time of anxiety with constant wars, the Inquisition, the plague and so on. And the 21st century is, as far as I can see, equally anxious with the terror threats, wars, and pandemic scares and so on. It wasn't so hard to shift back and forth those 500 years, at least emotionally.

When I write, I produce 1500 words every day for about four months. Admittedly, some days it's difficult but it's usually the days I struggle that I produce the most interesting stuff. After the four months I lift my head up and begin to weave the narrative together.

While I know my Columbus is no hero, he certainly has courage and I think a dogged and determined spirit. He is undaunted. It's this Columbus spirit of temerity and adventure - not the revisionist villain who inadvertently starts a genocide - that most interests me. My Columbus narrative ends with the acquisition of his ships. There are hints about the genocide that follows the Spanish discovery but for the most part, my Columbus is done once he gets his ships.

I want to end this blog with my thoughts on this Columbus spirit. If readers take one thing away from Waiting for Columbus, I would hope that it's something of the Columbus spirit of adventure and willingness to risk - especially in matters of the heart. Columbus is the perfect metaphor for a love story - and there are many love stories in this book.

When we meet our other, our husband, or wife, or partner we embark on a Columbus adventure. We invite this other person to come along on this journey with no real map, or compass, or clear end-point. We only hope that we will arrive safely, together, at some destination. That leap of faith is a Columbus leap. That's what made me fall in love with my delusional Columbus, and with his nurse, Consuela - because she was so willing to go there too.

And it's also there when a reader picks up a book. We open the book to its first page and begin to read with the same spirit of adventure, and curiosity. Every time we pick up a book and start to read, it is with that "Columbus" question: I wonder where this is going to take me?

You can find out more about Thomas Trofimuk on his website 

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