I’m in uncharted territory, marching words across the page one after the other until they say something that feels true. I never really know where I’m headed or how I’m going to get there, wherever there turns out to be. No matter how much I research and prepare, no matter how clearly I envision the destination, writing is always like this for me, a journey of discovery. It’s exciting, often frustrating, always difficult — which is exactly how any worthwhile journey should be.
Still, there are plenty of times when I contemplate the figurative wilderness of the blank page or a half-written draft and wonder if I’ll ever find my way to the end of the story. How can I be lost again? Am I wandering in circles? Why can’t I figure out where to go next?
In these uncertain moments it helps to remember that other authors have made it through the journey successfully and often: everything I’ve ever read is proof of a literary crossing. When in doubt, I retrace the paths of the pioneers, the masters, the literary heroes sung and unsung.
One of my current projects is a dystopian novel. Recently, while doing research, I revisited Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I had read Atwood’s classic years ago, but I quickly discovered that I’d forgotten how powerful and unsettling it is. I had also forgotten how thoroughly Atwood has mastered the art of time in her fiction, how effortlessly she weaves together past and present to move her stories forward. This mastery is on full display in The Handmaid’s Tale. As a reader, I was transported to a grim future that could all too easily be our own; as a writer, I found myself stopping again and again to marvel at her complex layering of time, and to make notes on how she accomplished it.
I read the novel with a stack of blank note cards close to hand. Chapter by chapter, I used the notecards to map out the narrative matrix, color-coding its different threads — Offred’s life before the Republic of Gilead, her re-education at the Red Center, her life as a handmaid.
As the matrix grew, I studied how the threads intertwine, noted how Atwood balances the forward momentum of the present action with the development of multiple arcs in Offred’s past. Each evolving arc informs the others, the past speaking to the present, the present calling back to the past. There isn’t a strict pattern to this tapestry, no golden ratio governing the balance of time in fiction, but seeing the elements laid out before me was illuminating — the technique of a master brought to light.
And this is only one masterful element of one incredible novel by one great author. My bookshelves overflow with other signs of safe passage, a reassuring sight. There are many ways to navigate the welter and waste, many examples to follow. Even when I’m lost or wandering in circles, I know where to turn for guidance. ■
Mark Springer is a freelance writer and editor living in Colorado. Once upon a time he was a software coder and worked in library reference publishing.