The impulse, of course, is try to be faithful to what you initially had in mind—but the process, instead, calls for you to let go of all of your opinions, and all the things you think you think. You’ve got to go on down, as Robert Penn Warren used to say, into the cave. (James Dickey used to call it “the cave of making.”) You enter the cave of making without any opinions, without any preconceived notions, and tell the story as clearly as you can. You must not bend your characters according to some idea you have about how they ought to behave; you’re just letting them be themselves, whatever that is. If you do that, and you’re faithful to it, you’ve got a shot at writing something true. This is the only way it works for me.
Other people can have other ideas about this, of course. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t say this, who are writing really good stuff. John Irving will tell you that he never begins a novel until he knows everything about it. He conceives the story, he makes up the characters, he thinks everything through, and arranges it, and then he sits down and writes it. He’s written really good books, and they’re very true-feeling.
But for me, I’m going through—I’m taking a path. And I don’t have any more knowledge about what’s ahead than, say, somebody in a car with their headlights on. You can’t see beyond the fan of the headlights, and you just keep going until the road takes you wherever it’s taking you. I think it was Charles Baxter that expressed it that way. But in any case, whatever gets it done, I guess, is how a writer needs to work. And for me, that’s what gets it done: to sit down, try to be clear, and let go of everything you think you know.
Each time through, you get a little bit smarter about it. You’re educating yourself as to what this particular novel or story is. I think that’s why some people say “I feel like I have to learn how to do it every time I do it.” Because that’s in fact what’s going on. Gotta learn how to write this one. Each book has its secrets, and it takes its time letting you know what they are. Your job is to keep the faith. You sit down and concentrate on doing the work. Did I work today? If the answer is yes, no other questions. If you’re working, it’s always going well. If you are working, even when it feels like shit, and every single line seems to come as if it was burned into your forehead, you’re still working. So it’s going well.
It must become a part of your daily habit that you spend those two hours messing around with it. By the time it’s over, there are parts of it you’ve done two, three dozen times. They start to please you after a while because you’re getting better every time through it.
That’s the other thing I love to tell students, by the way. You cannot ruin a piece of writing, you can only make it necessary to do it again. You should see my students’ faces when I tell them this: You cannot fuck it up! You can only do it again. It ends up being very encouraging.
I think that’s why I cherish these lines so much, especially when the way ahead is hard. I often say them to myself, just for encouragement, because they make me feel happily in the company of Shakespeare. Not as a poet or a writer, but as someone who has been enlarged and whose existence has been enhanced by the great writing he brought forth. You are not different in kind than the bard when you sit down to write, you are partaking of that miracle. That's something to celebrate.