Earlier this week, I watched a PBS special called Fire and Light. It was about glass artist Dale Chiluhy’s exhibit for the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2008. As it was Chihuly’s first exhibiton in San Francisco, he and the de Young folks decided to make it a really big deal. Huge. Chihuly would fill eleven rooms in the museum with new and archival work. Eleven rooms. Eleven gallery size rooms.
Chihuly painted and drew and conceived what would go in each room. He thought big. He didn’t hold back. Then the glass went into the fire. Because Chihuly knows his materials, his vision came very close to what transpired in the fire. But sometimes, something different and unexpected happened. I watched how he went with the surprise of it when he placed these bowl-like shapes inside each other. Separate, they were lovely and liquidy. Placed together, their drama plunged us into another world.
As writers we know our tools: nouns, verbs, POV, setting. But when we begin to tell the story, it is like glass going into the fire. We put the first draft on paper and, as Stephen King says, “we tell ourselves the story.” Then we look at it. We find the heart of the story. We build to its climax. We shape the dialogue. We hide knowledge from the main character until just the right moment. We spin the hot molten glass until its shape fulfills our vision.
Sometimes, though, we are surprised by something a character does or says. When that happens, we have to pause and look and wonder, “Wait, am I missing something?” Do we rebuild the story to make room for that surprise? Do we go back and contain that emotion, harness it, hint at it, so that when they story turns that inevitable corner at the end, it all makes sense?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
We don’t sit down with the book in our heads. Yet. We don’t know if it will work or what will turn out. We don’t know until it is on the page. That first draft is so delicious and scary. We allow for surprises and magic. They are, for me, part of the wonder of writing. But, at some point, we have to take the helm and make decisions and choices that leave some of those surprises on the dock, so to speak. We have to shape and trim and make the essential vision sparkle.
What allows me to make these choices is faith. When I sit down to write, I have an idea, an image, a sketch, if you will. I write. I find the story. I let the image speak to me. I let it tell me what it’s doing in my head. I write. I have faith that the shape will come. I have faith that I know my materials well enough that I can find the story and tell it so it comes alive on the page. I have to believe this when I sit down to write.
If Chihuly were to walk into my home right now, I think I might say, “Wow, eleven rooms. How did conceive of filling eleven rooms with your vision? Was it a little scary, a little daunting?”
In my head, Chihuly might smile and say, “No scarier or more daunting than filling one hundred blank pages with a whole world.”
If you can dream it, you can do it. Have faith.