Not all who wander.
I wander a lot. Even if you don’t count the time I spend running, almost every day I leave my apartment for no other reason but to drift. Sometimes these are photowalks, where I move with the awareness of the frames being created around me, looking for the decisive moment to pull the shutter. Many times, this is just to get lost in a thought as my feet carry my aimlessly.
With or without a camera, I walk sporadically; something my girlfriend loves to give me grief about. My steps mirror those in my head, starting in one direction, before darting across the street to get a closer look at a passing bird or the dappled light on brick. It’s just part of who I am. It’s important to me to let my feet carry me. After all, in this age, how lost can you get?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of stories lately. How a narrative is constructed, for maximum effect. This is different across mediums, from plays to books to films, but also between different length. Short fiction is constructed very differently than novels are, for example. As someone who writes across a lot of different forms and styles, I have to be aware of how each path pertains to the larger task at hand.
I’m about to enter a new phase with my novel manuscript. It’s been on my back burner for a few months now, longer than I had anticipated, so coming back to it has been a bit of a challenge. I feel as if I’m wading into unfamiliar waters all over again.
When it was first written, the story was told mostly straight-forward, first person, to model the metafiction and contemporary writing I admire so much, like Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgård. I know the manuscript needs to be rewritten again, that much I can feel. So I am approaching it as if from scratch.
With starting over (though with all the knowledge gained over the past year writing it), I wanted to take a look at the structure, the method of how I was telling the story, to make sure I was best leveraging my writing abilities for the most emotional impact. Quickly though, I hit a block, nearly as great as the one I overcame once I figured out the story I was trying to tell.
So, as I do whenever I get stuck on a writing problem, I went for a walk. I took my camera, as I always do now that the weather cooperates. I spent a day last week reading through some of my reference material I had written out when beginning this manuscript, as well as some of the textbooks on writing I keep coming back to. This is what was turning over in my head as I hit the pavement.
I started out as I always did, through the back alley, before letting my subconscious mind take over. The path I set out for was long and winding, and full of small intersections for me to branch out on if I so chose.
At each crossing I came to, the same thought rang out in my head: “Which is the most interesting path to take?” As I was out on the street, I was searching for the small moments that form the basis of most of my writing, as well as my urban photography. Yet, this pertains directly to writing longform as well.
There are a near infinite number of paths that can be taken when walking through a neighborhood, or writing a novel. Yet, as writers, our goal is not to take the most familiar or comfortable path; it’s to take the most interesting path, the path with the most impact, the path most illuminating to the human condition. Then, most critically, translate that experience to something understandable to an audience.
That’s all that separates the best storytellers from the rest of us. Anyone can list off the points from a to b that got you there. The best writers know what is important, what can be left off, shortened, and lengthened. The ability to compress and expand space and time to find the most effective balance; to hit you the hardest.
That’s what I strive for. Sometimes, it takes a bit of meandering to find the way.