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Writing Without a Map

Photo by Adrien LeDoux

Photo by Adrien LeDoux

Years ago, I went across Europe by train with a Eurorail Pass accompanied by two not-so-nice young women — one was my friend and the other was her friend — and they spoke French to each other, a language I had failed to master despite several years of abusive and/or despairing French teachers. Anyway, you get the picture.

We arrived in Florence and they had an itinerary and a map — this was pre-cell phone, and their special language — so I decided not to go with them but to wander off alone with a bit of college Italian and yes, being 20, a sense that I was welcome anywhere.

And I was. It wasn’t just Italian men who smiled and made welcoming gestures, but women of all ages, children, and older people, and babies, and dogs and cats sunning themselves in courtyards, one of which contained a small group of older men who were glassblowers eating their lunches. They gestured to me to come in and made me take part of their lunch and we smiled and chatted sort of and they blew me a beautiful glass winged horse. Later I met two bold boys on scooters that drove next to me slowly shooting out terrible lines — “Do you like music?,” “Do you like Florence?,” “Do you know you are beautiful?” — I said “no” to all these questions and then started to laugh and ended up on the back of one scooter, zipping through Florence at twilight, eating in a café that overlooked that exquisite city as the lights came on, laughing as they argued about which of them was my date for the next night. I was leaving the following afternoon so it didn’t matter. I kissed them both on the cheek when they delivered me safely back to our hostel.           

What does this have to do with writing? I love having a starting place in a book, an idea of an ending and then allowing things to unfold as they will. Yes, I know my characters pretty well and part of their pasts and futures but that’s all. It’s not for everyone, risking getting on the back of a scooter with a gorgeous Florentine but it was something I will always remember. If you’re a planner and an outliner and a researcher, honor that, but also honor your instincts and your gut. Try to loosen your grip on the planning and controlling part of your creativity and allow the narrative to unfold without fearing you will never find home again. You will. And your readers will be grateful because you trusted them enough to leave space for them.

I was in a workshop with the writer T. C. Boyle once and someone asked him how and why he had decided to set his latest novel in Alaska. “I wanted to go there,” Boyle said. “I just thought it would be cool.”

Molly Moynahan