And this reminds me of another Munro line, from her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:
There are places that you long for that you might not ever see.
Some places you never actually experience yourself, but are always important in your life anyway, even if you never go. Places you learn about through literature and other people’s stories can take on intense personal significance, as Munro’s Canadian hamlets have for me. I have this second quote written with the lines from “Face” in that big, black notebook; I probably wrote them on the same day. Somehow, I feel like these two passages—because they are about place in literature, and where things happened, whether a physical place or interior place—are what Munro is all about.
In my own work—the way I actually write—place plays an essential role, too. A choreographer I whose work I love, Merce Cunningham, was once asked, “How do you start a dance?” He said, “Well, you have to begin by showing up.” I think that’s brilliant, and it goes for writing, too. You can have all these novels in your head, all these characters and ideas, but if you don’t actually show up to your writing day—the physical place where you get the work done— you have nothing.
The characters, too, need to “show up”—the story needs to happen somewhere. Again, Munro: “Something happened here.” That line could be the epigraph to everything I write. The “here” is every bit as important as the “something happened.” For me, the two cannot exist without each other; setting and character respond to and inform one another.
When I begin writing, I need to have a place. It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time. If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.
In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.