Someone I knew long ago suggested that the things we feel most repelled or unsettled by are the very things we should pursue. (I never figured out whether this person—a man—was genuinely attempting to share his wisdom or was trying to manipulate me into having a relationship with him. Either way, I was far too young at the time to appreciate his wisdom or relate to him as anything approaching an equal.)
However, his idea returned to me this week as I found myself wandering in the undifferentiated soup of my new novel and wondering: why do I choose to torment myself by writing another novel? I have no cadre of readers eagerly awaiting my next book, no contractual obligation to a publishing company, nor even a naggy companion nudging me. And yet I try to carve time each morning to swim in this primordial stew of characters, plot, and structure.
I do it partly because—believe it or not—it’s fun. In the same way some people enjoy Sudoku or crossword puzzles, I enjoy the challenge of seeing if I can solve the problems of the book in a satisfying way. But there’s more to it than that, because writing is also agonizing.
The agony is both symptom and cure. I write because the process of writing throws me into one of the states of being I find most distressing: uncertainty. After all these years, I have finally embraced that long-ago suggestion to dive headlong into what makes me most uncomfortable, in this case, writing.
And each time I do, I find myself a little more at ease with the idea of not knowing what is going to happen to my characters or how I am going to resolve their conflicts… and a little more at ease as the “author” of my own existence, with an equal degree of uncertainty about—and much less direct control over—the vicissitudes of life. It’s an ease sought after by one of the characters in Dance of Souls, Amy, who feels that even if she lived to be a hundred—and perhaps especially then—she would never get over her fear of death. She addresses it by creating sculpture; I address it by writing, and we are both a little freer as a result.