The Powerful Practice of Writing by Hand

The author Laura van den Berg on what inspired her newest novel, The Third Hotel, and how she accesses the part of the mind that fiction comes from

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In Laura van den Berg’s new novel, The Third Hotel, the protagonist keeps running into her husband on the streets of Havana—which is strange because her husband is dead, killed by an oncoming car just a few weeks earlier. In the journey that follows, Clare begins to question everything she knows—her past, her present, the very distance between life and death—though the novel isn’t concerned with resolving the mysteries it presents. Instead, it’s about letting the reader inhabit a heightened sense of uncertainty to dramatize the ways that mourning can profoundly disorder us, reveling in what van den Berg calls “the hallucinatory quality of grief.”

In a conversation for this series, van den Berg explained how a short story by Joy Williams helped inspire The Third Hotel. “The Country” also unfolds in ambiguous territory, a surreal landscape where a mass pandemic may or may not have struck, and the narrator’s deceased parents seem to be speaking to him through his son. Rather than definitively explain whether its unsettling events are “real,” the story’s shifting shape prepares us to ask profound questions about mortality—how we can be here one moment, and not the next. Van den Berg discussed the ways “The Country” informed her novel, how literature trains us to grapple with difficult existential questions, and how writing itself helps fend off existential dread—something she’s observed in her practice of writing by hand each morning.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the novel Find Me and two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. A recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize and an O. Henry Award, she teaches fiction at Harvard University. She spoke with me by phone.

Laura van den Berg: The first Joy Williams story I ever read was a story called “Escapes,” a year or so into my MFA program. As a young writer, I was sort of sailing around trying to “find my voice”—for lack of a better term—and I was really chafing against the very minimal brand of domestic realism that I’d read so much of in college. When I read “Escapes,” which is about a daughter and her alcoholic mother who go on a road trip to see a magician, it was as if a door had been opened to me.

In some ways, it is a very straightforward, realist story. But I also felt there was a quality to Joy Williams’s sensibilities, this charge to her prose, that was new to me. Her vision of the world vibrated with a kind of hallucinatory energy I had never experienced before.

It was one of the first moments that I started to understand that “realism” doesn’t belong to any one school of writers—and that, actually, the real can be manipulated to feel a great many ways. I became interested in work that isn’t overtly fantastic, and yet the air just feels sort of altered somehow, vibrating with a kind of strange energy. Williams was a deeply important writer for me in terms of exposing these kinds of possibilities.

There’s a great Williams essay, “Uncanny the Singing That Comes From Certain Husks,” where she articulates the quality I find myself looking for in fiction. “A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings,” she writes. “This, unsurprisingly, is not enough … The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.”

The idea is that writers start by wanting to change the world, somehow, but usually end up just settling for merely communicating ideas—which isn’t enough. The thing is, I think Williams’s own work disproves what she’s saying here. Her fiction definitely does transmute and disturb. Her stories work like transfiguring agents, and encountering them really can reorder the way you see the world.

There’s one story that captures this especially for me, one that was very much on my mind as I worked on The Third Hotel. “The Country” concerns a man, a first-person narrator, who is in the habit of going to these meetings called Come and See!, which are held in a local church. The attendees get together to try to answer the same question: Why are we here? Each person has their own perspective. One woman, Jeanette, seems to be honing this alarming habit of finding dying people and going to sit with them to observe their final moments—that’s her reason for being, to watch the way they change in that moment of transition.

The story itself seems to take place in this weird, liminal space. The narrator’s home life is in disarray. His wife has left him. He’s caring for their young son, Colson, alone. And both his parents have died. Or have they? Because, later, Colson seems to be able to channel the voices of the narrator’s dead parents. There’s a strange in-between-ness to everything. The landscape is at one point referred to as a “bustling wasteland,” this odd, paradoxical construction. There’s a sense of everyone going mad in a mad world.

I’m not sure Williams is exactly trying to answer the question Why are we here? the same way her characters are in “The Country.” I do think of her as being a very theologically engaged writer, one whose work is focused on diving into those most central and recurring questions of the fact of our existence. But, in my mind, this story demonstrates how wrestling with that question of why we are here is really an impossible pursuit. That’s captured in a line I love, where Colson seems to be speaking through the voices of the dead parents:

“We are here to prepare for not being here,” he says. “Then you’re in the other here, where the funny thing is no one realizes you’ve arrived.”

I love the koan-like, contradictory logic of that phrase: We are here to prepare for not being here. But the beautiful thing about “The Country,” though it’s a story reckoning with the anxiety of mortality, is that Williams doesn’t really let us know if we’re here or there, whether the characters are alive, or in a place beyond life, or somehow straddling the line. Instead, Williams is interested in exploring the hallucinatory quality of grief, how states of mourning can make things feel ravaged, surreal, and hyper-vivid—the story dramatizes the profound weirdness and dislocation of having lost someone. And it just lets us sit with that.

That’s so much more to Williams’s project than drawing any sort of clear conclusion about why we’re here, or where we go when we die. She doesn’t want to disclose, instruct, or advocate—she transmutes and disturbs. It’s about locating the reader in these intensely dynamic spaces, and letting us navigate them without much hand-holding or explaining. Evocation is definitely prioritized over explanation. She just puts us in there—in that space of terror, and bewilderment, and strangeness, and beauty, and grace.

I think, as a writer, I’m less interested in resolving questions than I am in working with them—sort of sitting with the questions, the way I’ve learned to do by reading Williams. In The Third Hotel, my narrator Claire is wrestling with this sense of perpetual unfinishedness. She’s trying to make sense of her husband’s death, how someone’s life can just stop and not continue, and of the lack of resolution in her own inner life. She’s struggling with all the unclosed loops, the knowledge that undone matter will be forever undone. What do you do with that, the fact we can be here, and then not here? At one point, she remembers a line from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich that sums this feeling up so neatly: “I was here, and now I’m going there! Where?”

That question of where we are going, and how we’ll know when we’ve entered into a different dimension or realm—where Claire’s husband Richard has disappeared to, and whether Claire has even disappeared into a new “where” of her own—those are definitely central questions of the novel. These are irresolvable questions. They can’t be answered in life, and can’t be answered definitively in fiction. And yet fiction does give us a way to work with and explore the areas of experience that are the most uncertain.

I think writing, or any form of art-making, is a way to prepare for not being here. Not that we can. No amount of preparing can really ready us, in a meaningful way, for the great void that awaits us all. (Happy Friday.) Literature doesn’t necessarily make the big, unsolvable questions any easier to live with. Williams wrote that “writers when they’re writing live in a spooky, clamorous silence, a state somewhat like the advanced stages of prayer but without prayer’s calming benefits.” In other words, it’s a form of prayer without peace. And yet, something about fiction—reading it, writing it—can increase our tolerance for ambiguity in a way that’s at least helpful for the artistic process.

My students are often asking me, What do you think are the most important qualities for a writer? And one thing I always tells them is that it’s helpful to be willing to sit in a space of uncertainty. There are entire years, especially with novels, where you really don’t know where the project is going. You think it’s going in Direction A, and then you realize Direction A was hideously misguided, so you spend six months backtracking and go down a new path.

Being able to sit in that space of unfinishedness is so important to the creative process. Writers, and artists more generally, have to have a high threshold for that. You don’t have to be born with it. It’s a capacity you can develop. Temperamentally, I’m not very comfortable sitting in that space of uncertainty, so it’s something I’m always consciously working on—something that being a novelist has demanded. My first two books were collections of short stories, and with stories the composition process is so much more compressed. But my first novel [Find Me] and The Third Hotel were deep morasses of uncertainty that went on for years and years. The process really asks that of you. I learned to get better at sitting in those spaces of unfinishedness.

For me, that’s often easier in the morning. In an ideal scenario, I would work every morning up until lunchtime. I also have a full-time teaching job, so during the semesters that isn’t going to be possible every day of the week. But when I can, I try to get up fairly early, when the sun’s still rising, when email is quiet, and when much of the world is still asleep. You’re still a bit closer to the dream space of sleep, and the part of the mind that fiction comes from feels a little more accessible. All the weird jellyfish that floated closer to the surface of thought while I’ve been asleep are more available. When I invite them to show themselves, they do. And I think those jellyfish would be pushed down by the demands of the day if I waited until late afternoon or evening to try to write.

Even if I’m not able to generate real pages on a given day, I do handwrite every morning. It’s something I started to do on book tour, or on particularly busy days during the semester, just as a way to stay connected to my work and keep generating imaginatively. Some mornings, I open my notebook and think: Okay, there’s nothing here. I have nothing to write about. But I just keep at it. It’s a practice, and I believe in the power of practice. And it’s the most amazing thing: Something always comes out. The matter of story always comes up. I have a line, and then I have another line, and then I’m off. Even if it’s just a few short paragraphs, something has been committed to the page. Some kind of mark has been made.

We have so much human anxiety about where we’re going, and what we might be when we’re no longer here. But I think art can be a beautiful inverse of that: Instead of here and then gone, it’s nowhere and then concretely here. When you look at a final copy of a book, or a painting, or listen to a song, it’s just amazing to think how there was just a blank space in the world where it didn’t exist before. But now it does. Because someone dreamed it, and then made it, and now it’s here—hanging on a wall, or in a bookstore. It’s beautiful. And it isn’t going anywhere.