This past summer, I had the delight of hearing Derek Palacio share his ideas on writing a book-length manuscript, and I really took a shine to the way he framed his talk.
Palacio discussed how Christianity can serve as metaphors for faith in one’s writing—his discussion helped me reframe how the fundamental religion I grew up can be an important part of my writer’s mind. This reframe can offer me metaphors and an understanding of the power of story. It can also help me see that faith cultivated is a much stronger faith (in this last case, I’m thinking of the faith one needs in both the writing process and one’s creative ideas).
Derek offered a four-step framework for the long-form process. The first step is the one where we will necessarily spend most of our time. He asserted, and effectively illustrated through the Moses and the burning bush narrative, that writing a longer piece requires madness. Writing a novel or memoir requires a certain amount of delusion—that this thing that has appeared in front of me could lead to other things. Derek then explored the relationship between fate and doubt, asking the question, “How should I respond to this mysterious urge?” We can doubt it, as Moses initially did, or we can have faith in the idea and see where it can take us. Derek suggested that the question whether to believe in the idea is more about doubt in the self rather the idea.
The next interesting point about the madness phase lies in the notion that we have to bite off way off more than we can chew. If a story presents itself in good faith, we must follow it, write it, or we will lose more than we gain. We have to be willing to be a stranger trying to write in a strange land. It is necessary to overreach. The final point about this phase is that all the following steps must be subordinate to this one.
The second step is mania: “The white page recedes and the warm comfort of text emerges. We need to attach landscape and meaning and a world emerges. Plot can expand like a gas. What might happen transforms into plot.” Derek then quoted John Gardner – “the writers first job is to authenticate the story’s primary meaning. The what, who, where.” Who else but the writer can do this?
The third step is exegesis, where writers have to figure their way out of the first draft, trying to connect to the original fire that lit the inspirational pyre. This step is followed by doubt, and I loved Derek’s assertion that this was the most Catholic of the four steps. I felt like my brain exploded when I heard that there are different kinds of doubt—this was key insight; doubt in fourth step so different than the doubt in the first. And the practical applications for the revision process are many: doubt everything equally; forget what you know is good about the first draft; work with the premise that everything is bad unless proven otherwise.
Derek laid out an effective means for considering the long form narrative and I feel empowered by the framework he shared. Amen.