by Penelope May
All my life I’d been creating fiction in my mind, so it wasn’t surprising when I moved to a small house in Maine, that I would choose to make it official and take a shot at writing for publication. My kids were grown and I had no major responsibilities, leaving a wide open space in which I could do what I wanted. I came to this writing project with a “let’s just see what happens” point of view, putting myself deliberately in the unknown.
In the past, I didn’t like the unknown; the idea of unknown always made me very anxious. Knowing gave me a feeling of control and the illusion of security, and over the years I’d gotten very good at knowing. When I adopted kids as a single parent, I treated it as an adventure within a known space, just a different way to create a family, and put the many unknowns out of my mind. It was similar with the fiction in my head; when my kids were young and I wrote for my own entertainment, I would dream up a plot, follow it to its satisfactory conclusion, and be done. At the time, I had very little confidence as a writer.
But as my kids grew, it became clear I couldn’t manage a high tech job and raise two kids by myself; you might say I’d arrived at the dreaded unknown. Except I now know that unknowns are neither bad nor good; instead they contain infinite possibilities which are all…unknown. This particular unknown went on to provide me with a new life. At my job I was invited to do a program at Landmark Worldwide, which eventually enabled me to create a life I loved with my children. This was the program that taught me to love the unknown.
I like the Joseph Campbell quote, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” Said another way: If you follow the path you know, you’ll only find more of the same. It’s in the unknown that discovery and miracles happen.
When I began writing Appointment with Unreality, its working title was “The Unknown,” which described the book’s subject matter, its unknown plot and characters, my as yet unknown writing process, and the unknown outcome—would there even be a book in the end? I was game to find out.
I started with the unlikely premise that an alien being was lodged in a woman’s mind. There were plenty of obvious sci-fi plot lines to draw from such a premise, but none of these involved any discovery on my part. What I was eager to discover was: How could this alien be physically inside her brain?
To answer that question, I had to locate the story firmly in normal reality. This gave the main character, Lee, both a psychological danger (was she insane?) and a puzzle to solve (what was this thing in her head?).
The puzzle grew to be an important plot element, as Lee pours over online neurological research, and I was only one step ahead of her. At the point when I had to write the solution to the puzzle and move on, I was almost as anxious as Lee that the answer hadn’t revealed itself yet. Then I chanced on a paper about synaptic input in the brain, and bingo! My answer was right there, so clear and consistent with the story, it seemed as if it had been waiting for me. It was a great day of discovery in the unknown, and I was elated.
So what can writing from the unknown provide us as writers?
- First, it frees us from clichés and conventional thinking. In the unknown, all the stuff that stuffs your brain is gone.
- It allows a deeper exploration of characters and scenes. You have to keep asking yourself “why?” and listening for the answer.
- It creates discoveries that can’t be anticipated, sometimes taking the story to unimagined places, for the better.
- It makes room for a greater depth of feeling about the characters, their experiences, and the lessons of the story.
- It’s an adventure like none other.
Cultivating the unknown can require a lot of silence. I stop listening to the news when I drive, so I can have uninterrupted silence in which to muse about the story. Walking the dogs is a great time for me to immerse myself in action sequences, and weeding the garden usually generates a bunch of dialogue. It can take patience to wait for the unknown to deliver the creative goods. I learned not to write a scene before it had autonomous life in my mind. For instance, I could wake up with a clear image of a scene, or hear dialogue running in my mind. Usually a feeling of excitement would accompany these signs.
The unknown is a realm of creation and creativity, in life and in writing. It may not be comfortable for everyone, and it may not be as efficient as some people want. I did use a small group of readers to let me know if I was on the right track, because being in the unknown can feel risky. But by the time I wrote the last part of the book, I, like Lee, was in a place I’d never imagined, and I was grateful for it.
As readers may guess from the cover of the book, Appointment with Unreality mentions a galaxy. Early in the writing process I went online to find a good-looking galaxy, and discovered this gorgeous composite image of NGC 300 (NASA GALEX). Perhaps it’s a simple JPEG image on the web, but it’s as fine an image of the unknown as I can imagine.
#kaipress #AWUbook #iwrite2discover #theunknown #landmarkworldwide