Near the end of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is in the gallery for the trial of the Knave, who is accused of stealing tarts from the Queen of Hearts. It's a sham of a trial--even young Alice can see the ridiculousness of the process--where witnesses and the King, acting as judge, talk in circles and silly expressions. The Queen wants a sentence before there's even a verdict; she wants someone's, anyone's, head to be off, of course. Alice wants the trial to be over, so they can move on to refreshments.
The last piece of evidence to be presented is a note, a series of nonsensical verses found in the Knave's prison cell. The Knave claims he didn't write it, which he can prove because he didn't sign it. (If he didn't write it, of course, how did he know it was unsigned?) The King retorts that the Knave must be guilty because not having signed it means he was up to some mischief. The Queen and Alice argue over this supposed proof of guilt, and the King commands the White Rabbit to read the verses.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
I've been reading a lot about the process and art of writing as of late. I bought new copies of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Recently I've read many, many great articles and blog posts from agents and editors and writers, about everything from finding an accurate voice for a period piece to finding the impetus to complete an unfinished piece. This idea of finishing what you've begun--of finding the inspiration to carry forward--is likely to be addressed at the onset of a new year, I suppose, but it's been especially poignant for me.
I've talked before about being stuck in my fiction project, of not being sure how to proceed in the story. I spent some time rereading and reevaluating the flow and structure of the story. I enlisted the help of a dear friend to read the draft and give me some honest feedback. She agreed, thankfully, that the story had to continue down the path that I'd started. Another dear friend suggested that I jump ahead in the story, write the end and work backwards. It seems counterintuitive to me, but I know of several writers who do just that, especially if writing an emotionally difficult section. One said she wrote the happy ending and worked backwards so she always knew her characters would be okay.
I can't do it that way. I need a working plan. I'm not so inflexible that I can't change the plan as I go along. For a project, I need an idea of where it's going and how I think I'll get there. When I started my fiction project, I had character sketches and story outlines, from a couple of different characters' perspectives. Interestingly (to me anyway) some of that changed. Characters took on attributes I hadn't intended or really imagined for them, and their stories were altered from what I had planned. Personally, I think the changes were for the better. Their paths diverged from the original map, and that's okay.
I had to start at the beginning, even though I knew what was coming (or thought I did), and work straight through to the end. I can't jump back and forth in the story's timeline and have it make sense to me. I have to visualize the unfolding process these characters go through, to see them walking their cobblestoned paths, to get them to their happy endings.
And then what? When they're happy and tucked safely away in their beds, what happens then? They have to stop. They have to come to their end and be finished. That's kind of a scary thought for me. That means the end of a lot of work and energy, hopefully with a new, diverging path of my own. Hopefully there will be a new flexible plan after this one comes to its own end.
And isn't that what it's really all about, the going? "Go on till you come to the end." It's not "Go to the end." It's the getting from the beginning to the end that matters, the process of getting to a time and place where you can stop is what matters. As the adorable (and incredibly talented) Adam Taylor said to me once, "My father always taught me it's never about the destination.... It's all about the journey."
I'm learning a lot about myself during this going, working on these projects. I've lost my breath when I saw myself in characters in ways I hadn't anticipated. I've been surprised by the baggage I have unpacked and finally been able to throw away. The destination, the finished stories, are the final stop for this project, but it doesn't mean anything if I don't get there. For me, it's one stepping stone at a time, from the beginning to the end.