It’s a Mystery: Wise Words About Writing

Wise WritingI recently received in the mail a copy of the 70th Anniversary Edgar Allan Poe Awards Dinner Annual publication from Mystery Writers of America. I’ve never made it to the Edgar awards dinner, but I always read the Edgar Awards annual from cover to cover.

Every year it is full of articles written by famous, acclaimed, and well-established mystery authors.

And if there is anything that can help a working author realize that s/he’s not totally neurotic or bordering on the insane, it’s reading something by a famous, acclaimed, and well-established author and discovering that s/he suffers the same pains with the process that the rest of us do.

I write an historical mystery series. But my Alafair Tucker series is not set in intriguing, exotic, and popular Tudor England or First Century Rome. The protagonist is not a dashing young soldier or an eager and beautiful young woman trying to make her way in the world. My series is about a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in Oklahoma in the early years of the Twentieth Century. If there is any subject that is more unhip than the life of a forty-year-old farm wife in Oklahoma, of all places, I don’t know what it could be.

I write about that woman in that place because it interests me. Yet I wonder…am I wasting my time? And then I read an article in the new Edgar annual which was written by Isaac Asimov in 1977 entitled I’m Old Fashioned: “There is no sense in trying to buck modern trends. I am making a fool of myself writing as though it were a generation ago, and any minute everyone is going to find out I do it only because I don’t know any better…And a funny thought occurs to me. Do you suppose that, out there, there are a lot of people who like the good old stuff?”

Yes, Isaac, I wonder that a lot.

Sometimes it almost takes more sheer will to sit down and write than I can muster. Almost. I do it anyway. I write in a void. Is what I’m doing any good? In his book book on writing, The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer says that in his case, “there is always fear in trying to write a good book … I’m always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort. It seems better to have to forge the will to write on a given day. I find that on such occasions, if I do succeed in making progress against resistance in myself, the result is often good. As I only discover days or weeks later.”


I observe that sometimes too much thinking gets in the way. If I try too hard to figure it out, I become paralyzed. Is this better than that? Perhaps I should do this instead. I become Hamlet in drag, unable to take action. When I do enjoy myself, when I read what I’ve written and find it good, I have a strange feeling of dislocation, as though the words came from someone else.

I have had that experience very recently. In my current work-in-progress, I had been worrying quite a bit about an abrupt segue between two chapters. The action took a jump that seemed jarring to me, but I couldn’t think of a better way to do it. Until a couple of mornings ago when I slowly came up out of sleep and realized that the perfect sentence to tie the two sections together was running through my mind.

Now, I don’t believe that the brain generates thought. I believe that the brain is a receiver/transmitter of thought. Where the thought originates I do not know. The Muses? Angels? God herself? Does it matter? I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Mailer experiences the same phenomenon. “On happy days,” he writes, “one is writing as if it’s all there, a gift. You don’t even seem to have much to do with it.”

In the movie Shakespeare in Love, whenever things look absolutely hopeless, Henslowe, the theater owner played by Geoffrey Rush, tells the concerned party that “everything will turn out all right.”

“But how?” asks the worried person.

“I have no idea,” replies Henslowe. “It’s a mystery.”